Kansas City, Mo. — The sarcasm was dripping off Nick Castellanos’ tongue.
“Awesome,” he said, when asked about the Tigers avoiding the indignity of their first 100-loss season since 2003. “We’re not going to lose 100 games. That’s cool, I guess. Is it a victory? I wouldn’t say it’s a victory. But we’re not going to lose 100 games.”
With a 4-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals on Thursday, the Tigers ended a nine-game losing streak and assured themselves of losing no more than 99 games.
“No one wants to lose 100 games,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “Quite frankly, no one wants to lose 99 either. But I’d rather it be 99 than 100. One hundred is a big number.”
Castellanos, anchoring a makeshift lineup, delivered the killing blow — a three-run double in a four-run fifth inning off Royals left-hander Danny Duffy.
“For sure it’s been rough,” Castellanos said the Tigers’ 5-22 run in September. “But everybody here is going through the process of finding themselves and figuring out what works at the big-league level.
“It’s difficult, especially when you have a lot of guys trying to do that at the same time. But everyone is good, everybody comes here to work and no one is giving up.”
Castellanos came to bat with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth. The Tigers had broken a scoreless tie on a single by JaCoby Jones. Castellanos worked the count full and then fouled off a 91-mph fastball.
The next pitch was an 83-mph off-speed pitch that Castellanos waited on and walloped on a line off the left-field fence. All three runners scored.
“I was just thinking, ‘Nick, don’t strike out here; don’t do that,’ ” Castellanos said. “I was just trying to stay short and hit something hard.”
The four-run burst made a winner out of starter Daniel Norris, who threw five scoreless, two-hit innings for his first win since June 16. It was a gritty performance, considering Norris was dealing with a groin strain from the start.
“I’m pretty frustrated just because I feel like I’ve been battling this for the second half of the season,” Norris said. “When I was coming out of the bullpen, it felt pretty good. But these last two starts it flared up again.
“It got to the point where it was bothering me on every pitch. Ultimately, they took me out, but I didn’t want to come out. I wanted to keep competing. But you never know what might have happened if I kept going.”
Ausmus and trainer Kevin Rand came out to check on Norris after he winced on a pitch to Lorenzo Cain leading off the fourth inning.
Norris, though, convinced them to let him soldier through.
Cain singled, but Norris would get three outs in two pitches to end the inning. Melky Cabrera grounded into a force out on one pitch and Eric Hosmer hit into a 5-4-3 double play on the next pitch.
Norris ended his night with a clean fifth inning.
“Any time I tried to throw hard, my groin hurt,” Norris said. “So I just tried to taking something off and just throw strikes. It was nice to see I could be more efficient without trying to be real nasty. Just get ahead and stay ahead.
“It was a grind, for sure.”
Norris, who was banished to the bullpen at the start of this month, needed just 54 pitches to get through five innings. He didn’t walk anybody and had only four three-ball counts. The 14-pitch fifth was his longest inning.
He did get some defensive help, though. In the second inning, Hosmer hit a 3-0 pitch with an exit velocity of 114.4 mph, per Baseball Savant. The ball was scalded, but right at second baseman Dixon Machado. A defender with less courage would have bailed, but Machado picked it cleanly and threw Hosmer out.
“They made some awesome plays,” Norris said. “That’s the name of the game. Attack, let them put it in play and let your defense make plays behind you.”
In the third inning, Jones stole an RBI single from Whit Merrifield. With Paulo Orlando (double) on third with two outs, Merrifield hit a sinking line drive. Jones charged in hard and caught the ball at his knees.
Jones covered a lot of earth in the game. He made six putouts, ranging from gap to gap.
“He looked like the Royals outfielders have looked against us,” Ausmus quipped.
The Tigers bullpen closed it out. A solo home run by Orlando off Warwick Saupold in the sixth was the only marker for the Royals.
Daniel Stumpf and Drew VerHagen, both of whom were tagged for a combined three runs on Wednesday, earned some redemption. Stumpf pitched a scoreless seventh and VerHagen a scoreless eighth.
Shane Greene worked a scoreless ninth for his first save since Sept. 8, his eighth on the season, getting a game-ending double play from Melky Cabrera.
“It’s been a while since we put it all together,” Ausmus said. “The bullpen did a nice job. They held the lead and it came together for us.”
Figures it would take a makeshift lineup to stop the skid. With injuries to Miguel Cabrera (back), Mikie Mahtook (groin), Tyler Collins (ribs) and Jeimer Candelario (hand), the Tigers lineup featured three catchers — James McCann (DH), John Hicks (first base) and Bryan Holaday — and two utility players, Andrew Romine and Machado.
It included just three players who were starters before the trade deadline — Castellanos, McCann and Jose Iglesias.