Detroit — What the Tigers want to avoid, at all costs, in the coming days and weeks is any sense this 2017 season is already in 2018 mode.
But forgive witnesses who Tuesday night sat at Comerica Park and watched the Tigers lose for the second consecutive evening to the Kansas City Royals, this time by a 3-1 score that perhaps hinted this team’s best days in 2017 have expired.
A frightful baserunning blunder by Mikie Mahtook in the eighth, when he got doubled off at first on a line-out to right field, canceled what would have been an RBI for Victor Martinez and a 3-2 score, with the inning still alive.
“An extreme shift — as extreme as I’ve ever seen a shift,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who couldn’t believe how severely Royals outfielder Jorge Bonifacio had moved to the right-field line against Martinez.
“But you learn from the minor leagues that you’ve got to check on the outfield. Mistakes happen. But, unfortunately, this one came at an important part of the game.”
The foible came as Justin Upton stood on third base, and Mahtook on first, with one out in the eighth and the Royals on top, 3-1.
Martinez hit a scalding liner to the right-field corner that looked as if it was your basic double against the fence. But with Bonifacio lined up radically to Martinez’s pull side, the ball stayed up long enough for one of the Royals’ outfield gazelles to glove. He pegged a throw to first baseman Eric Hosmer, which beat not only Mahtook, but Upton, who also had gotten fooled by the liner, got a late tag at third base, and couldn’t score ahead of Bonifacio’s rivet to Hosmer.
After he was wiped out at first, Mahtook’s head dropped and he all but figuratively bored a hole into the infield, looking for refuge from a bad case of embarrassment.
“The worst thing as an athlete,” he said, “is you don’t want to do anything to let down your team. I knew better. I knew the situation. I just didn’t pick up the outfielder.
“You have to check, and that’s the cardinal rule. There’s no excuse. It’s a bad mistake on (my) part.”
It was one more testament to the difference in rosters. Kansas City, which won the series opener Monday, 5-3, had a tad more speed on the basepaths and in the outfield Tuesday and won again as the Royals suddenly have begun to sniff a playoff ticket.
The shame from a strict Tigers view might have been that a solid start by Michael Fulmer washed away.
He was not domineering, not overpowering, and not for a moment invincible.
But he was good: eight innings, eight hits, three runs, zero walks, six strikeouts.
“He earned a win,” Ausmus said of Fulmer’s night. “We just didn’t put up any points.”
Fulmer had a bad experience against the Royals last week in Kansas City but was happy with some Tuesday fixes.
“Getting the ball down in the zone,” Fulmer said. “And it was the best slider I’ve had all year.”
The Royals might have agreed. After one of the Tigers’ emerging irritants, Whitfield, had slapped a 95-mph fastball into the bullpen on the game’s first pitch, Fulmer zapped the next four Royals on strikeouts, finishing off each with his hard sweeper.
Pitching, though, wasn’t Tuesday’s issue. The problem was Detroit’s offense.
The Tigers began the evening with not a single lineup player batting any higher than Mahtook’s .294. He is not the man to carry this team, although his fourth-inning triple set up James McCann’s RBI single that was good for Detroit’s lone run.
The Tigers finished the evening with eight hits. Their only extra-base hit apart from Mahtook’s triple was Martinez’s seventh-inning leadoff double into the left-field corner.
He made it to third base on a one-out single to right by Andrew Romine. But he died there as Jose Iglesias chopped a bouncer in front of the plate that reliever Peter Moylan turned into a put-out at first, freezing Martinez.
Ian Kinsler was intentionally walked before Nicholas Castellanos ended matters on a ground-out to shortstop.
With their 1-0 lead holding, the Royals got a pair of runs in the fourth to make it 3-0, even if one of those runs shouldn’t have scored.
Bonifacio led off with a single, skipped to second on a ground out, then scored on Hosmer’s single to center. Hosmer rolled into third when Salvador Perez’s grounder through the hole, which most big-league third basemen would reach, slid past Castellanos.
Hosmer scored on a Mike Moustakas sacrifice fly that nearly turned into a put out at the plate. McCann, however, couldn’t snare Upton’s relay in the split second it might have nailed Hosmer.
“A little bit of a tough hop,” Ausmus said. “Mac was trying to make the play in one motion.”
Fulmer was followed by Daniel Stumpf, who had an easy ninth. But it was all academic on a night one run wasn’t going to be enough for the Tigers, or for Fulmer.