The juxtaposition was stark, the picture of a pair of clubs trending in opposing directions, at least for one sweltering night in the Motor City.
Inside the Royals dugout, in the middle of the sixth inning of Monday’s 11-8 victory, the players traded high-fives and prepared for the latter portion of their eighth consecutive triumph. To the other dugout shuffled Justin Verlander, the ace of his generation, humbled and hanging his head.
As Verlander made that lonely walk, an odd sound cascaded through Comerica Park, the home of the American League Central champions the previous three seasons. The fans here had deemed his performance worthy of jeers.
“It just proves the guy is human,” designated hitter Billy Butler said. “Everybody is human.”
The Royals, 37-32, capitalized on that fragility and inspired those catcalls. They moved to half a game behind the Tigers in the division race and bested their opponents for the first time in six tries this season. The Royals cracked 12 hits to plate seven runs off Verlander. Butler roped a bases-clearing double in the fifth, and Omar Infante parked a three-run shot into the visitors’ bullpen in the next frame.
As an exclamation point, the team dropped four runs on the Tigers’ bullpen in the seventh. Rookie Donnie Joseph allowed six runs, including a grand slam, in a disastrous ninth inning that muddied the score. Otherwise, the Royals had little reason to fret.
On May 28, they sat four games below .500 and wallowed in their division’s basement. With a victory over Max Scherzer on Tuesday, they can move into first place. There is a reason Butler referred to this week as “the biggest series of the year.”
Flying high after a sweep in Chicago, the Royals delivered a blow to the chin of this division’s overlords. In the first of four games here, Jason Vargas, 7-2, spun seven innings of two-run baseball and his teammates pummeled the opposition. “This is the moment we were waiting (for),” catcher Salvador Perez said, when all facets of the club locked into sync.
In Verlander, the Royals faced the personification of their wounded, prideful hosts. Verlander is the longest-tenured Tiger, a former MVP and a perennial candidate for the American League Cy Young Award. He is also caught in one of the worst stretches of his career.
In his previous six starts, Verlander yielded 35 runs in 37 2/3 innings, pitching to a 7.41 ERA and letting opponents post a .906 on-base plus slugging percentage against him. His fastball velocity has decreased, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio has dipped to a career-worst 1.72. The White Sox, the same club the Royals battered this past weekend, hung seven runs on him in his last outing.
All of this caused Yost to shrug before the game. “The minute that you think a guy’s struggling, you’re going to get spanked,” he said. “So we don’t think like that.”
Verlander did not look reborn at the outset. His fastball hovered around 91 mph. He nearly beaned Perez with a wayward curveball in the second. He spiked Nori Aoki’s foot with a misplaced slider in the third. He gave up a trio of singles in the fourth.
The Royals came up empty each time. Standing on second with one out in the second, Butler misjudged a flyball from Lorenzo Cain. He broke for third, apparently unaware the ball was nestled into center fielder Austin Jackson’s glove. In the fourth, sandwiched between the base hits, he grounded into a double play.
As Verlander teetered on the tightrope, his teammates touched up Vargas. Rajai Davis belted a changeup for an RBI double in the third. A trio of singles, the last struck by Jackson, netted an additional run in the fourth.
To break through against Verlander, the Royals required some good fortune. They created an opportunity with a fifth-inning double by Alcides Escobar and a subsequent single from Nori Aoki. Here, the team experienced some luck: Infante two-hopped an RBI single through the left side, and Eric Hosmer spun a cue-shot infield single to load the bases.
Up came Butler. He entered the game hitting .432 against Verlander, the highest average of any hitter with at least 30 plate appearances against him.
“Billy hits good starters,” Yost said. “That’s one thing Billy does.”
In years past, Verlander could unleash a fastball in the triple digits. On Monday, he only managed a 94-mph version. The pitch hummed on the inner half, and Butler tattooed it. His drive cleared Jackson’s head in center field, and emptied the bases in the process.
Verlander stayed in the game for the sixth, a decision rookie manager Brad Ausmus would likely regret. The Royals placed men at the corners for Infante. Verlander challenged him with a 94-mph fastball. Infante answered the call.
The distance on his three-run drive elicited gasps from this crowd of 31,774. Silence followed. Only when Verlander exited the diamond did the fans unleash their disgust, stunned at the beating laid upon the reeling ace by the Royals.
“We’ve got on a nice little run here,” Yost said. “And we’ve made up some ground. We’ll just keep doing it.”