Royals let early lead slip away in 7-5 loss to Tigers

It is here, in games like this against Detroit, the league’s reigning champion, where the Royals know they must prove themselves to be contenders rather than something far more familiar.

This was only a first chapter Wednesday night — the first of 19, in fact — but it still amounted to a disappointing case of not-quite. The Royals built a three-run lead before seeing it collapse in a 7-5 loss at Comerica Park.

It was sloppy on both sides on a frigid night where temperatures dipped into the 30s in the early innings. Pitchers on both sides struggled to find the strike zone. Walks and deep counts proliferated.

“That was some of the worst conditions I’ve ever played in,” right fielder Jeff Francoeur said. “I couldn’t feel my hands for the last three or four innings.”

Still ... the Royals had a lead and couldn’t hold it.

They erased an early 1-0 deficit by scoring four times in the third against Tigers starter Max Scherzer, but Wade Davis gave it all back and more before exiting with two outs and two on in fourth inning.

“I was just behind everybody and didn’t make pitches,” Davis said. “Even when I did make pitches, they hit them. You get a team like that any opportunity to score some runs, they’re going to do it.”

Davis, 2-1, was so sharp in his last start, a 1-0 victory in Atlanta, but never found a groove in the raw Michigan conditions. He threw just 50 of 95 pitches for strikes while giving up seven runs and eight hits.

“Everything was flat and up for the most part,” he said. “There was no repetition in my delivery. I was all over the place. I felt really good, but I was just all over the place.”

Four runs were unearned.

Those four all came in the fourth after a costly error by third baseman Mike Moustakas, whose offensive woes also deepened. He went hitless in four at-bats with two strikeouts and left four runners in scoring position.

“I came up in a couple of situations with guys on base, and I just didn’t get the job done,” he said. “That’s why we play baseball. We get to go out there and get them again tomorrow. Every day is a new day.”

The next new day offers another measuring stick: The series, reduced to two games by Tuesday’s rainout, concludes this afternoon with a matchup of aces: James Shields against Detroit’s Justin Verlander.

Rain is in the forecast, but it should be warmer by 10 degrees or more.

“The conditions (Wednesday night) definitely played into it,” manager Ned Yost said. “But then again the conditions are the same for both clubs. You have to go out and compete in it.”

It wasn’t just Davis.

Scherzer, 2-0, wasn’t sharp either. He threw 94 pitches in his five innings while allowed five runs and seven hits, but he still handed a two-run lead to Al Albuquerque to start the sixth inning.

Albuquerque left after two two-out walks in the seventh inning, but Joaquin Benoit held the two-run lead by retiring Moustakas on a pop to first.

Benoit worked a scoreless eighth before the prodigal closer, Jose Valverde, pitched the ninth for his first save in his first appearance.

Valverde joined the Tigers earlier in the day after signing a minor-league deal earlier in the month — after he failed to sign elsewhere as a free agent.

It all started well.

After the Tigers nicked Davis for a two-out run in the second inning, the Royals struck for four runs in the third after opening the inning with soft singles by Salvy Perez and Chris Getz.

Alex Gordon followed with an RBI double past a diving Prince Fielder at first base. Alcides Escobar’s ground single through the left side scored Getz for a 2-1 lead.

Billy Butler bounced an RBI single up the middle that moved Escobar to third, which produced another run — and a 4-1 lead — on an Eric Hosmer sacrifice fly to center.

The hits by Getz, Gordon, Escobar and Butler were all ground balls that exposed the limited range of Detroit’s infield defense.

All good at that point.

But the Tigers put Davis back in trouble later in the inning after Miguel Cabrera sent a one-out drive over Lorenzo Cain’s head in center for a double.

Fielder walked before Victor Martinez tomahawked an RBI double past first. Davis retired Andy Dirks on a fly to shallow left, but Jhonny Peralta whacked an RBI single to right.

Martinez also tried to score on the play, but Perez took the throw from Francoeur so early that Martinez wheeled toward to dugout.

Perez never made a tag, but umpire Fieldin Culbreth signaled the out when Martinez exited the dirt area.

Still, the lead was down to 4-3.

Davis started the fourth by walking Alex Avila, and Omar Infante followed with single to left.

Austin Jackson’s grounder to third resulted in an out at third, but Torii Hunter’s sharp grounder went through Moustakas for an error that permitted the tying run to score. Jackson raced to third.

“I came up on it,” Moustakas said. “Wade got a ground ball when he needed it, and I just didn’t make the play. I just came up on it and tried to be too fast.”

The Royals never recovered.

Cabrera’s sacrifice fly to center gave Detroit a 5-4 lead. Davis then walked Fielder before Martinez lined an RBI single to left for another run.

That was it.

Luis Mendoza replaced Davis and threw a wild pitch that moved the runners to second and third. Mendoza then loaded the bases by walking Dirks and forced in a run by walking Peralta.

The Tigers led 7-4.

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