DETROIT — The Detroit Tigers completed a four-game sweep of the Kansas City Royals in dramatic fashion Thursday, winning 5-4 on Alex Avila’s walk-off fielder’s choice.
Now the real work begins.
The Tigers have six games remaining in the regular season — three in Minnesota and three in Kansas City.
They finish with a 50-31 home record but head out of town with a 34-41 road record.
The Tigers simply can’t afford to play under .500 the rest of the way if they want to maintain their Central Division lead.
“It’s funny because you never know one way or the other the way how it’s going to play out in the season,” reliever Phil Coke said. “Last year, we were really good on the road and we were all right at home.
“. . . The season’s the season. It all changes. You just never know what’s going to happen. Baseball’s a crazy game.”
It might be a scary proposition for fans that Max Scherzer has been scratched from Friday night’s start in Minnesota. Scherzer is 16-7 with a 3.82 ERA but is suffering from a right shoulder (deltoid) problem.
So manager Jim Leyland is turning to rookie Drew Smyly.
“I’m hoping Smyly — because of his last outing (one unearned run over 4 1/3 innings in a no-decision last Sunday) — can get us deeper into the game,” Leyland said. “If you have a total bullpen game, that’s totally different.
“But if you have a spot starter like Smyly, who threw 70-some pitches last outing, he’s built up enough to give you some innings. We’ll just have to wait and see how this all plays out. It’ll be interesting.”
It’s an interesting situation for a 23-year-old rookie. But Smyly has proven to be a cool customer, which is part of the reason he made the team out of spring training.
“The intensity and excitement is probably higher up, knowing that there’s six games left, and we’re one and a half games up now,” Smyly said. “Every game counts. But games like this, that’s the reason you play.”
The Twins have the worst staff ERA in baseball, but their lineup is still a formidable challenge. As a team, they’re batting .262 — good enough for sixth in the AL.
“They hit the ball, they score runs,” catcher Alex Avila said. “They score a lot of runs. You’ve got (Joe) Mauer, (Justin) Morneau, (Josh) Willingham, (Ryan) Doumit.
“That’s a professional team right there. It’s definitely not going to be easy.”
Smyly might have a little bit of an advantage, considering some of the Twins’ best hitters are lefties.
“Guys like Mauer and Morneau, I doubt left-handed pitchers faze them that much,” Smyly said. “You’ve still got to make your pitches and go out there and do well.”
So far this season, Smyly has the edge on Mauer, who is 0-for-5 against him, but less so against Morneau, who is 2-for-5.
Although the Tigers have struggled on the road, the Twins’ home record of 30-48 might help counterbalance that a bit.
As for the Royals, one can’t assume that just because the Tigers won all four games against them this week that they can do the same at Kauffman Stadium.
Let’s not forget that the last time the Tigers went there, from Aug. 28-30, they were the ones swept out of town. And you certainly can’t count on the Royals to commit five errors again like they did Thursday afternoon.
“If KC basically has a lead going into the sixth, seventh inning, the game’s over because their bullpen is probably one of the best in the league as far as just nasty stuff, being able to get strikeouts,” Avila said. “People don’t realize that because of their record, but that’s just stuff that we see as players playing them on a daily basis.”
Of course, the Tigers will be rooting for the Tampa Bay Rays, who start a four-game series in Chicago on Thursday night, then for the Cleveland Indians, whom the White Sox visit to end the regular season.
It would be even better for the Tigers to take care of their own business.
“Less than a week, we’ve got two series,” Smyly said. “Win both these series, and I think we’re in pretty good shape.
“Go win two out of three both times and, hopefully, everything will work out well for us.”