Detroit — Ivan Nova and Miguel Cabrera were talking in the Tigers' clubhouse Wednesday night. Cabrera had just gone 0-for-4 and had just two hits in his 22 at-bats this young season.
"He said, 'I don't know, I feel good but I'm not hitting the ball the way I want to,'" Nova said, recalling the conversation. "I told him, you are better today than the day before. You are going to continue to progress and the ball is going to start jumping off your bat.'"
Ivan Nova, pitcher, prophet.
Cabrera slugged two home runs Thursday and Jonathan Schoop hit his third in three days — bumping the Tigers' MLB-leading home run total to 15. But three solo home runs was insufficient run production on this night.
The Royals scratched across a run off reliever Jose Cisnero in the seventh inning to break a 2-2 tie and went on to beat the Tigers 5-3 and gain a split of the four-game series at Comerica Park.
The Tigers also lost the services of right fielder Cameron Maybin, who strained his right quadriceps legging out an infield single in the ninth. He was placed on the injured list and the Tigers will recall an outfielder from Toledo Friday — possibly Derek Hill or Travis Demeritte.
The first runs scored off the Tigers' bullpen after 10 scoreless innings muted a strong start by Nova, who limited the Royals to two runs over 5.2 innings.
"He definitely pitched good enough to keep us in the game and give us a chance to win," said catcher Austin Romine.
The curveball, a pitch he mostly abandoned last season, gave the Royals’ hitters fits. He threw 28 of them (out of 83 pitches) and got eight swings and misses and six called strikes. Only one was put in play.
"I didn't feel too comfortable with it last year, I kind of fell in love with my sinker," Nova said. "But in my last start in Cincinnati it felt really good, I got a good feel for it."
What vexed him more than anything, though, were defensive shifts the Tigers were deploying against the Royals left-handed hitters. Four of the eight hits he allowed, including RBI singles by Ryan O’Hearn and Franchy Cordero — both left-handed hitters.
Switch-hitter Mondesi also got two hits against the shift, batting left-handed.
"You feel like you make the right pitch, you get a ground ball to (air quotes) shortstop and it's a hit, you feel a little down," Nova said. "But the coaching staff does a real good job with that, and the guys with the computers (analytics department).
"Sometimes you are not lucky."
There didn't appear to be any miscommunication with either the alignments of the pitch selection and location.
"It just happens," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "People beat the shift all the time. These are things we talk about all the time. We go over these things...This is where they want us to play them, it's what the information says, and that's where we put them."
To be fair, the shift did save Nova two hits, as well.
"Professional hitters," Romine said. "I do it myself. If I see a hole on the right side and I get a pitch away, I'm going to try and hit it through. Mondesi has been rolling over some balls, change-ups, in this series and he made an adjustment."
Gardenhire went into the game knowing he'd have to mix and match at the back-end of his bullpen. He wanted to avoid using set-up man Buck Farmer and closer Joe Jimenez, both pitched the last two nights.
Saving lefty Gregory Soto for a save situation, he went with Cisnero in the seventh and Carson Fulmer in the eighth.
Cisnero hit Whit Merrifield to start his inning, never a good thing. Jorge Soler followed with a double, advancing Merrifield to third. That was the first hit surrendered by the Tigers’ bullpen after 27 straight outs.
Merrifield, whose hitting streak against the Tigers ended at 16 games, scored on a ground out by Salvador Perez.
The Royals gave themselves a cushion with two runs in the eighth off Fulmer, newest Tigers reliever. Singles by Alex Gordon and Adalberto Mondesi — each with three hits on the night — set the table for pinch-hitter Bubba Starling, who smacked a two-run double.
Gardenhire said if the game had been tied of the Tigers ahead, Soto would have got the ball.
"But Fulmer is going to have to pitch," Gardenhire said. "We want to see what the guy can do. He really just made one bad pitch, hanging a breaking ball (to Starling). His ball was moving. We like him, we like his arm and we need to see more of him."
With the two homers — the first to right field and the second to left — Cabrera now has 40 multi-homer games in his career, though this was his since 2016. He's stands at 480 homers for his career — 30th all-time on the MLB charts.
"Miggy is going to be Miggy," Nova said. "I know that he is getting a little bit older, but the guy is still hungry. He's a pro and he knows what he need to do up there. ... He's the smartest hitter in the game, there's not question about that.
"Yeah, he's getting a little older but he is still smart."
Cabrera has three home runs on the year in seven games. He hit his third home run in Game 55 last year.