Detroit — Not that baseball is easy, particularly in late September when you’re not that many innings from either going home, or going to the playoffs.
But the Tigers made stunningly simple work of a surprisingly off-kilter Royals team Friday night at Comerica Park in winning their fifth consecutive game with an 8-3 thrashing of last year’s world champions.
The victory left the Tigers a game behind the Blue Jays for the first wild-card spot and a half-game ahead of the Orioles for the second wild-card seat. If those positions were to hold through the regular season's final games, on Oct. 2, the Tigers would play Oct. 4 against the Blue Jays at Toronto for a ticket to the American League division series.
“Maybe I was the only one who felt it, but I felt there was more energy tonight,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who was plainly thrilled with the effort and atmosphere as a crowd of 29,480 and September’s playoff push seemed to add extra snap to the autumn air.
“”I just think there’s a little sense of urgency. It’s our last homestand. Our last chance to do something at home.”
It was the kind of evening when a phenomenal freshman pitcher named Michael Fulmer didn’t require much help, but nonetheless got it. From both the Tigers and from the Royals.
The Tigers helped mostly in the form of long home runs from, per usual, smoking-hot Justin Upton (liner to left, his 27th), who also had a double and two RBIs. Another recent returnee to the Tigers lineup, Victor Martinez, was so happy with the bomb he hit Thursday at Minnesota, he did it again Friday, slamming his 26th homer of the year, a right-handed blast into the seats in left. Cameron Maybin likewise jumped on Royals starter Danny Duffy, who had a very un-Duffy-like night, when Maybin drilled a liner into the left-center field bullpen in the fourth.
“We did a good job fighting off tough pitches that might have just missed their location,” said Ausmus, whose team, in his mind, might have taken some of its best approaches of the season against Duffy and three Royals relievers. “The hitters did a really nice job.”
Friday night’s party was a good one. Just ask the on-a-roll Tigers.
Ian Kinsler danced his way around the bases, slapping a double, single, and scoring three runs in his first game since being beaned Sunday. Miguel Cabrera added a single and drew two of the Tigers’ seven walks.
And, of course, there was Fulmer, the supposed rookie, who was simply high-octane, high-energy trouble for the Royals. He slipped into first place for the American League ERA title (now 2.95) when he pitched seven innings that were even better than his numbers: eight hits, one run, zero walks, nine strikeouts.
“He’s not always a strikeout pitcher,” Ausmus said, explaining the difference was Fulmer’s barn-swallow slider that veered at a sometimes sensational angle, as well as a change-up that Fulmer mixed elegantly.
“Not a lot of hard contact,” Ausmus said of Fulmer. “He was in the strike zone a lot and all his pitches were good. And they all stayed downstairs.”
Had it not been for a batch of squiggly ground balls and soft-serve singles that somehow became hits, as well as an overturned 3-6-1 double play, Fulmer might have had a shutout and another inning, given how low his pitch count could have tumbled minus the freaky stuff.
But at the end of seven, and even after some crazy bounces, he had thrown 102 pitches and per usual appeared as sturdy on his final fastballs, hitting 95 and 96 mph, as he had been in tormenting the Royals all of Friday.
Four-seam heater. Vicious slider. With a fine mix of change-ups. It was another example of how a man who seemingly should be a unanimous Rookie of the Year candidate can wreck an opposing batting order.
“I went to the change early and the slider later in the game,” said Fulmer, who spent much of his postgame media debriefing praising the pitch-calls of catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
“The slider, which had been a problem, had more depth tonight. And the change was there. Without the change, the fastball velo (velocity) goes down, and the slider can get a little flat. But with the change, it saves some bullets (fastballs) for later in the game.”
Of course, none of this would have been possible minus help from the Royals. And on this gorgeous, crisp-air evening they were all but the Tigers’ playoff allies
Duffy, who came into the game with a 12-2 record, 3.18 ERA, and reputation as one of the toughest left-handers in baseball, had your basic stinker of a start.
Four of the seven Tigers who got free tickets to first Friday drew them from Duffy on a night he lasted only two outs into the fourth. The Royals chipped in with two wild pitches. They made three throwing errors — two in one inning. They also botched Saltalamacchia’s pop-up at third base, which to Cheslor Cuthbert’s eternal gratitude became a force-out at second, only because Jose Iglesias had to freeze at first as Cuthbert waited to catch — then drop — Saltalamacchia’s dead duck.
Not that the Tigers were asking for charity. They’re winning of late even as one of their steadiest hitters, Nick Castellanos, remains something of a distant memory because of a fractured hand that has shelved him since early August.
“We just had tough at-bats,” said Kinsler, who mentioned one of thenight’s overlooked artists, a man who started at Castellanos’ old home, third base.
“Erick Aybar had two really good plate appearances,” Kinsler said, “and made outs.”
It was that kind of performance by a team that might have played one of its best games of 2016, at least in the minds of those who most appreciate baseball’s complexities — the men in uniform.
About the only downer for the Tigers — apart from another bad Mark Lowe outing, a two-run ninth — came when, of course, someone got hurt.
This time it was Iglesias. And befitting the night’s foibles, it happened on a weird play engineered by a Royals screw-up.
Iglesias led off the Tigers’ seventh and hit a conventional grounder to Cuthbert at third. Cuthbert then slung a throw wide of the bag that nailed Iglesias as he raised his right hand, normally, and in time with his stride.
He stayed in the game, temporarily. By the bottom of the seventh he was out.
X-rays were fine, but Iglesias has a right-hand contusion and is, as the training staff frequently reports, “day to day.”
That was all the bad news from the Tigers' home-field headquarters Friday.
They had won. Again. And if a possible playoff-bound team got a splash of help from an opponent Friday, the Tigers were happy to take it, given that so much of their sudden ascent has come by way of their own skilled doings.