Kansas City, Mo. — A 4-2 road trip through Seattle and Kansas City is no cause for distress, certainly.
Still, the Tigers flight home Sunday night was far less jubilant than maybe it could’ve or perhaps should’ve been after Carlos Santana blasted a two-run walk-off home run against Michael Fulmer giving the Royals a 3-2 win.
“Tough loss,” said Tigers rookie starter Casey Mize who threw his fifth straight quality start. “It sucks, but the game goes that way sometimes. We’re still super confident in Michael Fulmer. He’s the guy. He’s been kicking (butt), he’s been great for us. There’s no question there.”
The story line Sunday very suddenly turned from a debate on an official scorer’s decision to whether the Tigers squandered a fatal dose of scoring chances.
The former was rendered irrelevant and the latter turned out to be true.
“You’ve got to play to the finish and they did,” manager AJ Hinch said. “Santana got a pitch to hit and he hit it out of the ballpark. We did have opportunities and they had opportunities. But they came up with the big swing at the end.”
Until that swing, Mize was the central figure in this one. He took a 2-0 lead into the seventh inning, having allowed just one very questionable single — that to Salvador Perez in the fourth inning.
But that scoring decision became moot in the seventh when Andrew Benintendi and Perez hit legitimate singles off Mize and chased him from the game.
“I had Salvy 0-2,” said Mize, who had six strikeouts. “I threw him a splitter in and a sinker in and we had him in a good position. He fouled off a slider away and said, ‘OK, let’s go right back to the slider off the plate this time.'”
Instead, the slider stayed over the middle of the plate and Perez slapped it into center, ending Mize’s day.
“It was not an executed pitch and it led to a run,” Mize said.
With runners at second and third and one out, lefty reliever Gregory Soto got pinch-hitter Hanser Alberto to lift a 3-2 pitch to medium depth right field. Benintendi tagged scored easily from third.
But the Tigers, on a strong relay from Robbie Grossman to Miguel Cabrera to Jeimer Candelario, gunned down Kelvin Gutierrez trying to advance to third. Gutierrez beat the throw but third-base umpire Lance Barrett ruled his hand had come off the bag.
Replays didn’t support that but the Royals had used up all their challenges and the play couldn’t be reviewed.
Jose Cisnero pitched a clean eighth and the stage was set for Fulmer to close it out. The Tigers bullpen had pitched 13 straight scoreless innings until Santana locked on to a 1-0 fastball (97 mph) from Fulmer and drove it into the waterfall beyond the center field wall.
“It was a tough game,” Santana told Royals media after. “We were just trying to figure out a way to tie the game and then think about winning. When I see (Whit Merrifield) get on base, then I want to win the game right there.”
Mize was in complete control through six. He had command of all five of his pitches, especially his slider. The Royals took 11 swings at it and missed on six.
“Mize was good,” said Royals manager Mike Matheny, who was ejected in the sixth inning. “Each time we see him, he’s making adjustments, too. He threw a great game. You could tell our guys were having trouble picking up the spin. He was keeping us off-balance.”
About that first hit. Mize had walked Benintendi with two outs. That was the first runner against him. Perez hit a chopper to shortstop Niko Goodrum. The ball wasn’t hit hard (78-mph exit velocity) but it had a lot of top spin on it. Goodrum stabbed at it but it hit off his glove and went into left field.
According to Statcast, the expected batting average on it was .370. The Tigers asked official scorer Max Utsler to review the call. He did and stuck with it.
“I thought the play should have been made,” Hinch said. “It was an awkward play. I’m not an official scorekeeper and at that point in the game, I didn’t really care. It was a tough play but a makeable play.”
Catcher Jake Rogers rendered it inconsequential. He pounced on a ball that had bounced a few feet to his right and threw a seed to third base to nail Benintendi trying to advance.
But, oh those wasted opportunities.
It looked like the Tigers were going to break this one open right out of the gate.
A double by Grossman and then singles by Candelario, Cabrera and Eric Haase had the Tigers up 2-0 with the bases loaded and only one out.
But Royals lefty starter Kris Bubic, who had shut the Tigers out over five innings at Comerica Park on May 13, regathered. He got Wilson Ramos to foul out and he struck out JaCoby Jones on three pitches.
“That first inning is the one inning you really look back at,” Hinch said. “We put up really good at-bats and him wobbling and they had guys warming up in their pen and he got out of it.
“You come out of it feeling a little short, but happy we put up a two-spot right away against a guy who had been pitching really good.”
The Tigers did nothing else against him until the fifth, when they let him wriggle off the hook again. Schoop and Candelario started the inning with singles and Cabrera, who has hit six of his last seven games, hit a bullet, 107-mph exit velocity off the bat — but it was went right to shortstop Nicky Lopez who started a fast 6-4-3 double-play.
After leaving two more runners on in the seventh, Schoop doubled to lead off the seventh and got to third with no outs on a wild pitch. And he never reached home safely.
Schoop stayed put on a groundout by Candelario and then tried to score on a grounder by Cabrera. He was thrown out easily.
“A contact play with no outs isn’t a high-percentage play,” Hinch said. “But with one out you can take a bit of a risk. We had two shots to get the ball to the outfield with the infield drawn in and we couldn’t do it.”
The Tigers stranded nine runners and were 2 for 11 with runners in scoring position.
“We hate losing,” Hinch said. “We had a chance to win and we didn’t. It’s not fun. But we’re going to be OK. We’re going to show up tomorrow ready to play. But these are tough losses when you get walked off.”