Kansas City, Mo. — The Tigers are speeding toward a couple of dubious achievements; one irredeemable, the other could eventually produce a positive gain.
They lost their eighth straight baseball game Tuesday — 2-1 to the Royals. They have 95 losses with five games left (they are an abysmal 4-21 in September), bringing their first 100-loss season since 2003 in clear sight.
Well within reach also is the worst record in baseball, a feat that is awarded the first overall pick in the draft. The Tigers ended the night with the worst record in the game (62-95), trailing both Giants (61-96, who lost to Arizona) and the Phillies (62-96) in that three-plow horse race.
“I don’t want to lose 100 games,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “I don’t want to lose tomorrow. And I don’t want to have the worst record. I want to win the last five, quite frankly, but you can’t win all five until you win one.”
The saving grace Tuesday was the performance by starter Anibal Sanchez. In what was likely his penultimate start for the Tigers, he went out strong, posting his third straight quality start.
“He’s found a groove,” Ausmus said. “He’s learning how to pitch and locate, especially with the fastball up and the change-up down.”
Sanchez scattered seven hits in six innings, with six strikeouts.
“I feel really good,” Sanchez said. “I’ve found a way to finish the hitter. Before I wasn’t able to finish the hitter. I would leave balls over the middle, give up a lot of homers. But I found a way to strike out guys or get a ground ball and finish the inning and cut off the rally.”
His pinpoint command of four pitches has been the foundation of his recovery, but it’s been the re-emergence of his cutter, a pitch that has helped neutralize left-handed hitters, especially, that’s been pivotal.
“My cutter was on and off,” he said. “I used it early in the season, then I stopped using it in the middle and I am back to using it now. At this point, I am using it a lot. I’ve figured out how to throw it for strikes on both sides on the corner. That and my slider are helping me finish hitters.”
The Royals, who were officially eliminated from the wild-card race by virtue of the Twins' win, scratched out single runs in the fourth and fifth innings.
Whit Merrifield led off the fourth with a double and Sanchez was within an out of stranding him at third base. But with two outs, Eric Hosmer hit a flare off the end of the bat behind third base into shallow left field.
Shortstop Jose Iglesias didn’t chase the ball and left fielder Alex Presley couldn’t get to it. It fell in for a double.
“That was a good pitch to Hosmer,” Ausmus said. “A cutter on his hands. He just was able to hit out to where nobody could get it.”
In the fifth, Merrifield’s sacrifice fly scored Brandon Moss, who had singled and gone to third on a single by Alex Gordon.
In his last three starts, Sanchez allowed four runs in 18 innings with 25 strikeouts.
“I just trust what I have,” he said. “I don’t try to throw harder than I can. I don’t try to be nastier than I am. I just want to be able to throw the right pitch in the right situation.”
The strong finish is a tribute to his perseverance this season. Sanchez started the season in the bullpen, had a couple of stints on the disabled list, then chose to go down to Triple-A Toledo to rebuild his arm strength and pitch count.
“That just speaks to his work ethic and the kind of person he is and the kind of competitor he is,” right fielder Nick Castellanos said. “Regardless of the results, his work ethic has been the same. He’s a pro. If you put him on the bump, he’s going to give you all he’s got.”
Sanchez has done what he set out to do — reestablish himself as a capable big-league starting pitcher. The Tigers are expected to decline their $18 million option on him for next season, making Sanchez a free agent.
“I could be; it’s right there,” Sanchez said. “At some point, I don’t control the situation I’m going to be in. I’m good with the way I am right now. I feel healthy and I just want to finish strong — so far I am doing that.
“I don’t have a problem going into the offseason as a free agent. I’d like to stay on this team but it’s something I don’t control. I am ready to move forward.”
The last time the Tigers faced Royals starter Jason Vargas, they KO’d him in the second inning, putting up seven runs. Different story this time.
The Tigers managed a run and five hits off him in six innings. Ian Kinsler’s RBI single in the fourth inning was the only hit Vargas allowed that wasn’t erased at second base by a double play or caught stealing.
Vargas induced nine ground-ball outs and three double plays. The Tigers grounded into a season-high five double plays in the game.
“He didn’t give us much.” Ausmus said. “When he did, he seemed to get out of it with a double play. That’s part of what he does — change-ups and two-seam fastballs.”
Kinsler’s RBI single came on his 600th plate appearance — which triggered his $11 million guarantee for 2018.
The Tigers managed one hit off three Royals relievers — Kelvin Herrera, Joakim Soria and Mike Minor — in the final three innings.