The Detroit Tigers took Thursday to rest.
An off day following a three-city road trip gave the Tigers a chance to reset before returning to work Friday at Comerica Park. The series opener with the Kansas City Royals kicked off a grueling stretch of 19 games in 17 days.
The Tigers lost 3-1 in Friday’s matchup, in front of 24,349 fans, to begin the three-game series against the Royals, the worst team in the American League Central. The first pitch was delayed 16 minutes, until 7:26 p.m., due to inclement weather in the area.
“We had plenty of chances,” manager A.J. Hinch said.
The Tigers (29-46) scored one run or less for the 23rd time this season and finished 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position. The offense is averaging an MLB-worst 2.97 runs per game.
Detroit scored its lone run in the ninth inning on Eric Haase’s sacrifice fly.
“In the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth, we did a good job putting pressure on them and couldn’t get the hit,” Hinch said. “Haasey just misses that ball for the sac fly. It’s a frustrating ending because we gave ourselves plenty of opportunity and didn’t get the big hit.”
This time, the Tigers were shut down by Royals right-hander Brad Keller.
Keller, who entered with a 4.56 ERA and an AL-worst nine losses, dropped his ERA to 4.24 and notched his third win with an 89-pitch performance. He fired six scoreless innings — pitching into the seventh — on five hits and two walk with five strikeouts.
The 26-year-old recorded just four swings and misses.
“When he’s on, he can move the ball around,” Hinch said. “He threw a lot of 3-1 sliders, 3-2 sliders to lefties. He can move the ball around quite a bit. He’s got a good arm. When he’s at his best, he’s doing a little bit of everything.
“We couldn’t keep the ball off the ground at the beginning of the game, and then at the end, we just didn’t get the big hit. I think his outing changes if we can come up with one or two big hits.”
Crumbling with RISP
The Tigers stranded runners in scoring position — with no outs — in the fourth, sixth and seventh innings.
In the fourth, Willi Castro singled and advanced to second base on a wild pitch. The next three batters were retried: Javier Báez (strikeout), Miguel Cabrera (groundout) and Harold Castro (lineout).
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In the sixth, Riley Greene singled and Willi Castro drew a six-pitch walk.
The quality plate appearances put pressure on Keller and forced a mound visit. Just as he did in the fourth, however, Keller retired three batters in a row: Báez (flyout), Cabrera (strikeout) and Harold Castro (lineout).
“They’re in the middle of the order,” Hinch said. “Javy has been as hot as anybody. We want those guys to drive the ball. There’s no base-to-base. It was a hard time moving runners around in general tonight. But give your middle of the order as many chances as possible, and we feel good about that.”
In the seventh, Robbie Grossman reached safely with a six-pitch walk. Spencer Torkelson, the next batter, was hit in the helmet with an 88 mph changeup, and after he exited the game, Jeimer Candelario came off the bench to replace him.
That put two runners on with no outs.
Royals right-handed reliever Taylor Clarke replaced a tiring Keller and retired three batters in a row: Jonathan Schoop (pop out), Victor Reyes (groundout) and Greene (strikeout).
Greene struck out on three changeups.
Michael Pineda back from the IL
Right-hander Michael Pineda returned from the injured list and started his first game for the Tigers since May 14. He allowed three runs across seven innings and threw 65 pitches (41 strikes).
“I’m happy to be back,” Pineda said.
The Tigers didn’t want to overwork Pineda, who made two rehab starts for Triple-A Toledo. Hinch kept the nine-year MLB veteran on an innings limit.
“That was about as far as we were going to take him, no matter what,” Hinch said. “His pitch count wasn’t up by any means, but given that we didn’t give him many rehab starts, five ups was about as far as we wanted to take him.”
The Royals didn’t draw a walk against Pineda, but they tallied seven hits and struck out three times. Two of those hits were solo home runs in the fourth inning: Vinnie Pasquantino (for his first MLB hit) and Hunter Dozier drilled back-to-back homers.
Those homers put the Royals ahead 3-0.
“We’re here to win the game and play hard every day,” Pineda said about the lack of run support. “I don’t think people are frustrated, but they want to do their job. Everybody here, we want to do our job. Sometimes, we don’t have the best success in the game, but we’re trying to do everything we can to be better. That’s the goal for everybody here.”
Kansas City scored its first run in the third inning, ignited by Whit Merrifield’s double. Third baseman Harold Castro was too far away from his bag, so Merrifield stole third base easily.
He then scored on Andrew Benintendi’s single.
Pineda worked efficiently. Even in the Royals’ two-run fourth inning, the 33-year-old needed 17 pitches for three outs. He threw nine pitches in the first, 10 pitches in the second and 14 pitches in the third.
“They’re a very aggressive team,” Pineda said. “They love to swing at the first pitch. I know that, so I tried to execute my pitches, especially the first pitch. … I felt great today, especially in the last inning.”
Pineda was replaced by right-handed reliever Jason Foley, who completed a scoreless sixth inning. Left-hander Tyler Alexander handled the next two innings, and righty Will Vest tossed the ninth.