On May 28, Royals starter Danny Duffy sprinted to cover first base in Cleveland and was lost for six weeks. He fell awkwardly while hustling toward the bag and strained an oblique muscle in his side. The Royals would have to learn how to live without one of their top two starting pitchers.
In that moment, the predicament appeared dire. In the month since the injury, the Royals’ starting rotation entered Tuesday with a 4.12 ERA in its last 135 1/3 innings. The number was the second lowest in the American League during that span. A unit cobbled together with rookies, veterans and transitioning relievers helped propel a team back into contention in the American League Central.
Now Duffy is set to return in a matter of weeks, and that event cannot come soon enough. On a Tuesday in Detroit, a 5-3 loss to the Tigers produced the latest reminder of a rotation that turns brittle toward the back end.
In his third start since leaving the bullpen, Matt Strahm was nicked for five runs and six hits in 3 2/3 innings. The bulk of the damage came on a three-run blast by Miguel Cabrera and a solo homer by J.D. Martinez.
“I don’t know,” Strahm said. “My stamina was there today, I felt. But they were getting the bat on the ball, and I just couldn’t put people away.”
Strahm is still new to this. He is learning a different role at the major-league level and building up his arm strength. Before this month, he had never started a game above Class AA Northwest Arkansas. On Tuesday, he reached 80 pitches for the first time. He looked like a pitcher who had never done so before.
In the bottom of the second, Martinez feasted on a 91 mph fastball that was supposed to be located up and in and stayed low in the zone. One inning later, Cabrera sprayed a three-run shot into the seats in right field.
The moment wiped away the Royals’ 3-0 lead against Detroit starter Justin Verlander and changed the evening, yet the location of the pitch appeared somewhat reasonable. On a 1-0 offering, Strahm threw an 83 mph change-up that sat on the outside corner. Cabrera, a former MVP and future Hall of Famer, reached his bat out and poked the ball out of the ballpark.
“It was a little up more than I wanted it to (be),” Strahm said. “But that’s why he’s one of the greatest hitters.”
Here was another lesson in being a starter. In the moments after the loss, Strahm said he needed to exhibit better command with his off-speed stuff. He needed to work ahead. He needed to attack with his fastball early in counts.
In spring training, he sought to add a slider to his repertoire, hoping to induce more swings and misses. As a member of the rotation, he also needs to be able to throw it for a strike early in counts.
“It’s just tough,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “As a reliever, you can get by with command issues coming in (and pitching) in short spurts. As a starter, you can’t.
“It’s just learning to command the ball better.”
The Royals are still waiting on Duffy and Nathan Karns, who will not be back before late July. For now, they are seeking to make it work with Strahm and Jakob Junis.
For Strahm, who has allowed 10 runs in his last two starts, the real problem came in his inability to retire shortstop Jose Iglesias, who led off the third inning with a single, or center fielder Mikie Mahtook, who was down 1-2 before rapping a single to left on the ninth pitch of the at-bat.
The Royals (37-38) dropped to 9-19 against the American League Central as they opened a three-game trip to Detroit. The woes inside the division have been a year-long bugaboo. In the first week of April, they opened the season with three straight losses in Minnesota. On Tuesday, they fell to a combined 4-15 against the Tigers, Twins and Chicago White Sox.
The Tigers (34-42) were supposed to be a factor in the AL Central, while the Twins were thought to be enmeshed in another year of rebuilding. Both have been thorns in the side of the Royals.
As they arrived at Comerica Park on Tuesday for the start of a short road trip, the Royals ambushed Verlander for five consecutive hits and three runs in the top of the first. Whit Merrifield ignited the burst with a booming double to deep center field, and Salvador Perez finished it by lofting a two-run single into right field, pushing the lead to 3-0. But that was that.
The offense wasted an excellent opportunity to blow open the game in the first. Perez just missed a homer to deep center later in the evening, clubbing a ball 420 feet to dead center. Mahtook made a spectacular play at the wall.
“Only in here, it’s an out,” he said
As the game kept going, Verlander locked in, rebounding with six scoreless innings as his pitch count reached 111 after seven innings.
The Royals squandered another chance in the eighth, when struggling designated hitter Brandon Moss struck out with two on and one out. Alcides Escobar ended the threat by grounding out to short. Moss finished 0 for 4, his average plummeting to .179.
And yet, that was perhaps not the most frustrating moment of the night. In the first, Moss faced Verlander with two runners on base and one out. He expected to see nothing but curveballs. Back in late May, he batted against Verlander in an identical situation at Kauffman Stadium. He struck out on three breaking balls.
“He’s going to go for the identical result,” Moss said. “He needs a punchout right there, and he’s going to try to throw the curveball under my bat. They were popping up out of his hand, and I thought they were going to stay up, and they were just breaking down hard.”
Once again, Moss struck out on a breaking ball. Verlander slammed the door shut. The Royals would not score again.
“Those three curveballs,” Moss said, “in my opinion, I’ve been watching some video on him, and they’re the best three curveballs he threw all night.”