Tigers top Royals, stand alone atop AL Central

Tigers top Royals, stand alone atop AL Central
DETROIT -- The groan from the crowd at Comerica Park when Jhonny Peralta hit a ground ball in the eighth inning was unmistakable. So was the sense of urgency from Andy Dirks as he charged into second base.

The next reaction from the crowd was among the signs that Dirks had done his job. He wouldn't get the go-ahead RBI in the 5-4 win over the Royals on Wednesday night, but like Alex Rios against the Tigers nine days ago, he'll take a game-winning takedown.

"When [Royals second baseman Irving Falu] came back down ... and then the crowd went nuts, I realized he didn't throw it," Dirks said. "Or if he did, it went in the dugout somewhere."

It was that fundamental play, not a walk-off homer, that earned the Tigers their first one-run victory in a month after 11 one-run losses since Aug. 24.

And once the Indians beat the White Sox a few hours later, Dirks' was the play that put the Tigers atop the American League Central by themselves for the first time since July 23.

If you wanted a sign that the Tigers are looking at this final week with a playoff urgency, that was it.

"We haven't always played good, but we've played hard," manager Jim Leyland said. "Effort has never been a problem here, or guys being into it. If anybody questioned whether we were into it, if they watched the game tonight, then hopefully that will erase any thought like that.

"We're into it. We're just not a rah-rah team."

They haven't been much of a baserunning team for most of the year, either. Yet Dirks' slide completed a go-ahead rally that the Tigers pretty much manufactured to complete their comeback from what was once a three-run deficit.

"That was awesome, how we won that game," said Don Kelly, who scored the go-ahead run thanks to Dirks' slide. "The stolen base, Dirks gets a big hit and takes a guy out, that's playing baseball."

Two fourth-inning home runs from Alex Avila and Austin Jackson brought the Tigers back from the deficit the Royals inflicted on Rick Porcello, whose eighth consecutive start without a win was also his fifth straight start without getting through the fifth inning. After a highlight play from Miguel Cabrera on a first-inning grounder, Porcello gave up six of his seven hits in the air, including three doubles in a three-run third and Jeff Francoeur's solo homer in the fourth.

It looked like a sign of playoff urgency when Leyland went to the bullpen for September callup Luis Marte, who replaced Porcello in the fifth inning with the score suddenly tied. In actuality, it was a sign of concern about what Leyland was seeing in Porcello's pitches.

"I was suspicious," Leyland said. "I just didn't like the velocity drop. That's usually a red flag. There's nothing wrong. He told [pitching coach Jeff Jones] that during the third inning, he just had no feel for it."

Marte, Al Alburquerque and Joaquin Benoit combined for four scoreless innings and six strikeouts to keep the score tied. Add Jose Valverde's perfect ninth for his 32nd save, and it was one of the best performances from Detroit's bullpen in the second half.

That bought some time for the offense, which couldn't get another rally going against Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie, who retired the final eight Tigers he faced to wrap up his seven innings. The Tigers finally rallied once Guthrie left, and they manufactured a run off a flame-throwing reliever to do it.

Delmon Young's one-out infield single sent Leyland to his bench, using Kelly to pinch-run. He did it knowing that he would probably try to send Kelly against Kelvin Herrera.

"We knew [Herrera] was slow home," Leyland said, "but that guy's really a good thrower, and I wasn't sure if Donnie could make it or not. But I was emphasizing before he went out there to get a good lead.

"Everybody thinks a good jump is the most important thing, but a good lead is important, too, because if you've got an extra half-step or an extra step in your original lead, that makes a big difference. And he had a good lead."

That was probably the difference, because Kelly barely made it in. The play was close enough that catcher Salvador Perez was stunned he didn't get the call.

"I thought I was safe," Kelly said. "I thought it was a good call."

Dirks' ground ball through the left side advanced Kelly to third, but a charging Alex Gordon in left field left third-base coach Gene Lamont with a low-percentage play at best if he sent him. Instead, Lamont held Kelly in hopes that the struggling Peralta could put a ball in play and send him home.

Leyland thought about having Dirks try to steal second but wasn't sure whether the Royals would then intentionally walk Peralta and bring in lefty Tim Collins to face Avila. In fact, he was second-guessing the decision after the game.

When Peralta hit the grounder to third, Leyland was filled with dread. The difference that allowed Dirks to hone in on Falu, he said, might have been the same secondary lead that benefited Kelly.

"I don't know if it's where the throw was or what, but he was on my side of the bag, which gave me a better chance at him," Dirks said. "I was just going in hard and trying to make a good, clean, hard slide, and that's what I did.

"You just try to get a piece of him. You're not trying to hurt him per se. You're just trying to break up the double play. However you can do it to help the team is what your goal is."

With the Tigers now owning a magic number of seven, "however they win" is pretty much the theme.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.