The grounds crew at Comerica Park rolled out the tarp not once but twice on Tuesday afternoon, preparing for possible inclement weather on the day the Royals ascended into first place in their division.
The sun cooked the diamond, and the skies never opened. Instead, the storm arrived in the second inning of an 11-4 trouncing by the Royals, a 25-man tempest clad in gray road uniforms and surging now on a nine-game winning streak.
The Royals, 38-32, pummeled Tigers ace Max Scherzer for seven runs in that decisive frame. Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas cranked home runs that silenced this ballpark, the setting for Justin Verlander’s implosion the night before. Yordano Ventura (5-5, 3.26 ERA) tallied seven innings with three runs allowed to protect the advantage.
And the Royals will wake on Wednesday morning atop the standings after 70 games, the first time they have led the division this late in the season since 2003.
“It’s better than last place,” Gordon said. “That’s what I’ve been accustomed to in June.”
This version of the club possesses higher hopes than that doomed bunch of overachievers. Manager Ned Yost admitted their place in the standings was “nice.” Otherwise, he was noncommittal.
“What’s the date?” he said. “We’ve got a lot of games to play. We don’t get all geeked up. We’re on a nice run right now.”
During the first two games of this four-day set, they have asserted their will over the reigning division champions. On Monday, they caused the Tigers fans to jeer Verlander. The next day, they pounded his highly-decorated rotation mate and ejected him in the fifth inning. The Royals have now scored at least six runs in all five of their games on this road trip.
“It’s a great feeling, being able to lean on each other,” Moustakas said. “Go out there and know that we’re going to put up a bunch of runs.”
The Royals started a 23-year-old wunderkind they’ve nicknamed “Ace.” The Tigers countered with the genuine article. Scherzer won the American League Cy Young award last season. He will contend again in 2014. Though less suffocating this year, he still tied for second among qualified American League starters with 10.11 strikeouts per nine heading into Tuesday.
Before the game, Yost called him “one of the best pitchers in the American League.” In the second inning, the Royals transformed him into replacement-level fodder. The first eight men to bat reached base, starting with Billy Butler’s single.
Up next was Gordon. He blitzed a fastball at the knees, elevating it over the fence in right-center field for his eighth long ball of the season.
Scherzer shook his head and called for another baseball. His evening would only worsen. Salvador Perez walked to set the table for Moustakas. Down two strikes, Moustakas passed on a pair of changeups outside the zone. He turned on the third, a floater over the middle of the plate.
Scherzer craned his neck to watch the parabola crash into the seats just inside the right-field foul pole. Inside their dugout, the Royals erupted. The onslaught continued with singles from Alcides Escobar, Jarrod Dyson and Nori Aoki. Omar Infante plated the first two with a hit of his own. When Eric Hosmer drove in a run with a groundout, the scoring was complete.
“I just think our offense is playing so well right now,” Butler said. “One through nine, there’s no breaks. It puts a lot of pressure on the pitcher.”
The Royals allowed Scherzer to take a breather for a couple of innings. Detroit dinged Ventura for two runs in the bottom of the second, thanks to three hits and a fielding error by Escobar. But Ventura induced a rally-stopping double play from shortstop Eugenio Perez. He ended the third by causing Miguel Cabrera to hit into another one.
In the fourth, Lorenzo Cain delivered another reminder of his outfield brilliance. Called into action by Aoki’s second inning groin injury, Cain took over in right. With a runner at first, he ranged backward on a deep fly from J.D. Martinez. His leap was horizontal the night before; this time it was vertical, a wall-scraping grab which kept the baseball in the park and kept the lead at five.
The advantage ballooned again in the fifth. Once again, Butler roped a leadoff single. Gordon doubled to right. Perez dunked a single into left to score Butler. Scherzer was done. The Royals scored two more in the frame to pad their lead.
As an added bonus, Ventura appeared blessed by good fortunate. He wobbled in the bottom of the fifth, and issued a bases-loaded walk to Miguel Cabrera to yield one run. Facing Victor Martinez, Ventura flung a 100-mph far out of Perez’s reach. The ball bounced off the backstop and back into Perez’s glove. He fired a strike to third base, and Moustakas placed an inning-ending tag.
In the aftermath, Yost credited Perez and Moustakas for their instinctual play, “because there’s so many things that have to happen just right in that.” He also conceded the obvious.
“When you’re on a roll, you get breaks,” Yost said. “You make plays. Balls seem to fall in.”
Life in first place, it appears, is a charmed one.