Royals could be thorn in Tigers’ side

DETROIT – I don’t believe the Cleveland Indians can make a run at the Detroit Tigers over the final 41 games of the season.

But the Kansas City Royals – who beat the Tigers, 2-1, in the first game of Friday’s day-night doubleheader – could end up being a thorn in the side of the heavy favorites to reach the World Series.

Here’s why:

The Indians (65-56 and six games behind) could be finished off by the tough schedule they face in the weeks ahead. They begin a six-game road trip to Oakland and Anaheim on Friday night. Then Cleveland has three home games with the Minnesota Twins before taking to the road again at Atlanta against the Braves (74-47) and then to Detroit.

The Tigers (71-50) have dominated the Tribe this season with a 13-3 record, and the only remaining games are the three at Comerica Park.

The Royals (63-57 and 7.5 games back) are now 6-4 against Detroit, and the challengers have nine head-to-head matchups remaining with a chance to make up ground. The Royals could very well sweep this doubleheader with “Big Game” James Shields facing Toledo call-up Jose Alvarez in the night game.

The folks in Las Vegas don’t see this coming. The Bovada web site on Friday listed Detroit at 5/1 odds to win the World Series as the American League favorite. Bovada has both the Indians and Royals at 45/1 odds.

I’m not saying Kansas City is going to overtake the Tigers. What I am saying is that they have the best chance.

Danny Duffy, a top prospect coming back from Tommy John surgery, flirted with a no-hitter Friday afternoon. Miguel Cabrera broke it up with a two-out single that third baseman Emilio Bonifacio dove for but couldn’t snag. Duffy then finished out the inning before the Royals’ superb bullpen assured the lead wasn’t changing.

All-Star Greg Holland earned his 33rd save, and has converted 26 consecutive opportunities. Opponents are batting .228 against Royals relievers, who have a collective 2.73 ERA. Former starter Bruce Chen, who gets a spot start Sunday against Max Scherzer, has done to their bullpen what Drew Smyly has done for Detroit’s.

Adding Shields, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis in the off-season turned a poor rotation into a strong one. Jeremy Guthrie also is a solid starter, and Duffy could solidify the rotation.

“Their rotation is definitely night and day different,” Leyland said. “They added Shields and Santana. If they get Duffy back, it’s lights out. They’ve got speed and power. They are a really good team.”

It was Duffy’s second start after his rehabilitation assignment, and his first win of the season.

“He’s a really talented guy,” Leyland said. “He’s electric. His 95 (mph) is different from someone else’s 95.”

Verlander called the Kansas City rotation and relievers “a good recipe for success for those guys,” and added that they’ve always been a good offensive club with a “scrappy” approach.

First baseman Eric Hosmer, who hit a solo homer off Verlander, is living up to his hype after making adjustments with Hall of Famer George Brett. Salvador Perez is one of the game’s top young catchers, and designated hitter Billy Butler and Gold Glove left fielder Alex Gordon are tough in the middle of the batting order.

Butler ran his career average against Verlander up to .424 with two singles Friday, and recent acquisitions Justin Maxwell and Bonifacio had back-to-back doubles for what proved to be the winning run.

The Royals, after years of dealing away salary fat at the trade deadline, are now in the business of adding parts with hopes of making a run at the Tigers.

And they are definitely better.

“No doubt,” said Tigers super utility man Don Kelly. “No question about it. They are a much better team.”

Kansas City was 23-32 on June 4, and appeared to be headed out to sea for another lost season. But the Royals have been 40-25 since then, and would be much closer to Detroit if the Tigers hadn’t won 12 straight recently.

Detroit had best win two of the last three in this series to stem the tide.

The Tigers have been in a dead heat with the Royals since June 4 – posting the same 40-25 record. Now it’s a matter of making their current lead stand up.