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Tigers taking one step up, two steps back in race with Royals

With a full month remaining in the 2014 season, two individual games likely won’t have decided the AL Central.

But if the Royals end up winning the division and the Tigers either settle for the wild card — or worse, miss the postseason entirely — it’s possible we could look at this last week of August and realize the race may have been determined here.

After losing two in a row to begin the week, some (mostly hopeful Tigers fans) speculated that this is where the Royals’ magic run would end. Kansas City was bound to show some mortality following their 17-6 run through the first three weeks of August. No team could keep up that level of performance, that level of success. The Royals had scored only two combined runs in those two losses, reminiscent of the offensive problems that plagued this team through mid-July.

It looked like that third consecutive loss was going to happen on Tuesday against the Twins. Once again, the Royals lineup was sputtering, scoring no runs in eight innings. In the ninth, K.C. had to face Minnesota’s All-Star closer Glen Perkins, who had blown only four saves this season and none of them on the road. If the Royals lost, their first-place lead over the Tigers would be cut to one game, as Detroit beat the Yankees, 5-2, earlier in the evening.

But on his second pitch to Alcides Escobar, Perkins left a fastball down the middle, resulting in a single to lead off the ninth inning. Up next was the Royals’ best hitter (and possible AL MVP candidate), Alex Gordon. Once again, Perkins left a pitch in the middle of the strike zone, this time hanging a slider, and Gordon didn’t miss his pitch.

If the Royals make the playoffs for the first time in 29 years, Gordon’s walkoff, two-run homer is the moment that will almost certainly lead off the highlight package. It was the kind of win that might lead some (especially yearning Royals fans) to believe the postseason was meant to be for this team. After years of build-up and hope, the Royals are finally going to fulfill their promise.

Tigers fans watching the scoreboard — along with players, coaches and executives — and hoping for a Royals loss may also have been caused to wonder. Was Kansas City ever going to fall into the sort of slump necessary for Detroit to regain first place in the AL Central? And really, winning the division is the Tigers’ best bet for the postseason, because the Mariners are fighting hard for that second wild-card spot in the AL, led by another MVP candidate, Felix Hernandez.

Of course, the Tigers also need to win consistently to stave the Royals and/or Mariners. But right now, Detroit has the feeling of a team that’s taking one step forward, followed by two steps back. Winning their past three games going into Wednesday, the Tigers looked like maybe they were settling back into a groove and ready to take on September. In two games versus the Twins and one against the Yankees, Detroit had scored 26 runs. A struggling offense had come back to life.

Even better, the Tigers were getting their customary strong starting pitching. After missing a start due to shoulder inflammation, Justin Verlander allowed four runs and eight hits in 5.2 innings. That’s obviously not great, but considering that Verlander had avoided serious injury, pitching six innings was encouraging. Max Scherzer followed up with a win the next day, giving up three runs in five innings. And Rick Porcello threw eight innings versus the Yankees, allowing two runs.

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With prized trade deadline acquisition David Price facing the Yanks on Wednesday, Detroit was eyeing its fourth straight win and set to begin rolling. That would have been a great narrative. Instead, Price ended up pitching the worst game of his career, lasting only two innings while serving up eight runs and 12 hits in an eventual 8-4 loss.

The Yankees were surely familiar with Price, having faced him often as an AL East opponent with the Rays. But the left-hander performed well against the Yanks, compiling a 10-5 record and 3.66 ERA in 25 appearances (24 starts), while striking out eight batters per nine innings. The Tigers needed their new Cy Young Award-winning ace to come through, but he faltered badly.

That performance was made even more painful when Drew Smyly — the pitcher traded to Tampa Bay for Price — held the Orioles to one run and two hits over seven innings on Wednesday.

To be fair to Price, maybe he figured he was entitled to give up a few runs. In his previous start, he allowed only one hit in eight scoreless innings against his former team, but still took the loss when the Tigers lineup couldn’t score any runs against Alex Cobb and two Rays relievers.

Getting strong pitching out of the sure things in the starting rotation is even more important when you look at who the Tigers have to put on the mound for the rest of this week. For Thursday’s matinee against the Yankees, Kyle Lobstein is making his first major league start for Detroit. He’s posted a 4.07 ERA for Triple-A Toledo this season. But the Yanks are hitting .242 versus left-handers this season, so maybe this will go well.

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On Saturday, the Tigers have a doubleheader with the White Sox and are probably going to call up Kevin Ziomek from Single-A West Michigan for a spot start. The lefty is 10-6 with a 2.23 ERA and 145 strikeouts in 117 innings. But that’s against Class A competition. The other possibility is yet another left-hander, Kyle Ryan. He’s compiled a 10-10 record and 3.95 ERA between Double- and Triple-A this year. However, signs are pointing to Ziomek. [UPDATE: Ryan will get the start.]

This certainly isn’t how the Tigers envisioned things going when Doug Fister was traded during the offseason because of starting pitching depth. Starting the likes of Robbie Ray and Buck Farmer absolutely isn’t what Detroit had in mind after getting Price.

It’s possible GM Dave Dombrowski could make a trade before Saturday and the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline. But Detroit already struck out in trying to swing a deal for Astros reliever Chad Qualls after claiming him on waivers. Houston never seemed interested in trading Qualls, so maybe the asking price was too much. But this also calls into question just how much ammunition Dombrowski has for one more trade.

With a need for bullpen help and maybe another bat, the Tigers may just have too many holes to fill before September. None of the playoff contenders in the AL have perfect rosters, but their flaws don’t seem as obvious as Detroit’s right now.

Perhaps this is the bad stretch that every team goes through over 162 games, and the Tigers just have the bad timing of hitting their slump late in the season while the Royals have ignited. We have one more month in the season to see if these two trends hold in their current directions.

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is an editor for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He has covered baseball for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.