MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Heart of a lion? No, heart of Tigers beats in KC

Verlander receives plenty of support in stellar start to open key series

Heart of a lion? No, heart of Tigers beats in KC

Wait, you thought the Detroit Tigers were going to go quietly? Maybe you figured this weekend was about them passing the torch to the Kansas City Royals in the American League Central. You had plenty of company in thinking exactly that.

After all, the Tigers have all those old guys and a rotation that isn't nearly what it used to be. Their bullpen has been a manager's nightmare. So these three Tigers-Royals games had a chance to symbolize something larger.

There's just one teensy flaw in this smart narrative. Shame on us for maybe overlooking it. When the calendar turns to September, it's one of those critically important factors. Any baseball man worth his salt will tell you the same thing.

The Tigers still have the heart of a champion. In a nutshell, that's it.

To accomplish all they've accomplished these last four seasons speaks volumes about, not just their talent -- and there's plenty of that -- but also their pride, toughness and work ethic.

If the Royals are going to win the division, they're going to earn it. So in the biggest series the Royals have played in a long, long time, it was the Tigers who stepped up and made a huge statement in a 10-1 win on Friday night at Kauffman Stadium.

At 85-68, the Tigers lead the 83-69 Royals by 1 1/2 games with nine to play. Detroit has won 12 of 17 against Kansas City this season.

The Tigers will tell you that it was just one game and that there's still a long way to go. They will tell you that Friday night decided nothing.

But it mattered.

First of all, it came in front of a loud, fired-up house. For a Royals team that hasn't made the playoffs in 29 years, this night had an October feel to it.

Yet it was the Tigers who took control at the start, scoring four first-inning runs off Royals starter Jason Vargas and running up a 10-0 lead in the first five innings. Perhaps the best news for the Royals had nothing to do with offense.

Offense hasn't been a problem. The Tigers are leading the Majors in runs since the All-Star break. Miguel Cabrera is hitting .463 this month. J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter have all gotten hot at the most important time of the season.

Detroit's offense has been so good that it made for an interesting contrast with the Royals. Kansas City has one of baseball's best defensive teams and one of its best bullpens, along with a starting rotation that has been tremendous.

Tremendous starting pitching has been Detroit's calling card in recent years. Justin Verlander won the AL Cy Young Award in 2012, Max Scherzer in '13. Meanwhile Rick Porcello is having his best season, with a 3.19 ERA as he approaches the 200-inning threshold.

And then at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski acquired David Price from the Rays. For a lot of people, that deal wrapped up a franchise-record fourth straight postseason appearance for Detroit.

Only it didn't. Scherzer and Price had a string of tough starts. Verlander continued a puzzling, disappointing season. Suddenly, the Tigers looked vulnerable.

On Friday night, though, they looked like a team very capable of winning a fourth straight division championship and maybe a little more. Best of all was how they did it.

They took control of the game early, took the big crowd right out of it. Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez had three hits apiece. Manager Brad Ausmus gave rookie catcher James McCann his second career start, and he responded with his first two Major League hits.

But the best news of all was that Verlander allowed one run in 7 1/3 innings, his best performance of the season. He took a shutout into the eighth, something he hadn't done the entire season.

For a guy who began the day with a 4.81 ERA, this was a huge step in the right direction. Verlander is doing it differently than he once did. Instead of calling upon a 100-mph fastball to get him through tough spots, he has to rely on movement, location and smarts. Verlander opened the bottom of the first inning by throwing Royals leadoff man Alcides Escobar four straight changeups.

Right there, Verlander sent a message that he was capable of challenging hitters in a different way. He was terrific at this, mixing curves and changeups with a fastball that was typically around 91 mph.

Verlander threw strikes, kept the Royals off-balance, and with all those runs on the scoreboard, he threw strikes and worked fast. He sailed through seven innings, allowing six hits and no walks.

When it was over, the Tigers had guaranteed themselves a 152nd day atop the AL Central. Now the pressure is squarely on the Royals for the final two games of the series.

It was Detroit's 361st victory since the beginning of the 2011 season. That's tied with the Cardinals for the most in the big leagues. Unlike the Cards, the Tigers have yet to win a World Series in this run.

Anything less than that would make this season disappointing. There have been a couple of stretches when it was easy to wonder if they'd even get back to the postseason. But it might also end up playing out exactly like the Tigers hoped they would. They should not be underestimated.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.