DETROIT (TNS) — On a chilly Monday afternoon at Comerica Park, Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar made an easy turn at first base, kicked up infield dirt as he ran and cruised into the bag at second with a double.
He hadn’t gotten a hit in his eight plate appearances to start the season. He was unable to make solid contact, getting under pitches that turned into lazy fly balls and rolling over others that became easy ground-outs.
But on an 0-2, 92 mph offering from Tigers pitcher Francisco Liriano, Escobar laced a hit up the third-base line and into deep left field. Within moments, it seemed, he had moved over to third base on a wild pitch and come home on a Drew Butera sacrifice fly to score the first run of the game in the third inning.
But the lead was not enough for Royals starter Jason Hammel, who after getting through the Tigers’ batting order twice with relative ease, ran into trouble in the fifth inning. Notorious for struggling on his third time facing batters in a game, Hammel wound up with a loss in the Tigers’ 6-1 defeat of the Royals.
"It’s one of those maddening games where I feel like I executed the game plan pretty well," said Hammel, who last year posted an 8.79 ERA the third time through the lineup. "It just didn’t go our way."
With one out in the fifth, Leonys Martin lined a single to left field. Then Jeimer Candelario stretched what looked like a one-base hit into a double, taking advantage of left fielder Alex Gordon pulling up on a ball that blooped in front of him. The next four batters reached base.
By the end of the inning, the Tigers had driven up Hammel’s pitch count to 82 and tacked on four runs — two scored on designated hitter Victor Martinez's RBI single — to break a 1-1 tie.
Hammel was charged with five runs on seven hits and three walks.
Before his start took a turn sharper than Escobar's on the basepaths, Hammel recorded three strikeouts in four innings. He held the Tigers to relatively weak contact — they mustered an average exit velocity of 80.3 mph on six batted balls in the third and fourth innings — after the second inning and was the beneficiary of a few defensive shifts the Royals employed Monday afternoon.
But in the fifth, eight of the nine batters who faced Hammel got enough of his pitches to jack the average exit velocity up about 6 mph. A ball that travels 86.2 mph off the bat registers a light pink color on MLB's Statcast tool and generally doesn't cause much of a disturbance in a pitcher's outing.
Yet the Tigers felled Hammel by taking advantage of those soft-hit balls anyway.
"Third time around, they just found some holes off him," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "That ball up the middle (an error on Whit Merrifield) we had it played perfectly. I thought he threw the ball OK. They just found holes."
The Royals did little in the immediate aftermath to help their cause. Reliever Blaine Boyer allowed a triple to Nicholas Castellanos in the seventh inning and then watched him score easily on Martinez's sacrifice fly to center field.
Mike Moustakas and Lucas Duda, who was removed from the game in the seventh because of tightness in his right hamstring, stranded Whit Merrifield in the sixth inning. Jorge Soler was left on base after drawing an one-out walk from Liriano, who pitched 6 2/3 innings, in the next frame.
Only Escobar, who hit a triple when he faced Liriano a second time on Monday, could find any traction at the plate. Ironically, Escobar had never had much luck against the left-hander, who entered Monday's game having held Escobar to a .100 (2 for 20) batting average in 23 plate appearances dating to 2010.
"He's throwing really good change-ups, really good sliders," Escobar said. "I was waiting for the ball and trying to get a base hit."
The Royals, who have led at some point in each of their first three games, dropped to 0-3 to start the season.