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Tigers need to keep defensive focus in crucial series against Royals

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The Tigers took advantage of mistakes made by the Royals, but they shouldn't expect it to happen again.

Joe Robbins

DETROIT — One team had two errors on the same play in an inning and was unable to turn a double play in another. The hits just kept coming and that "please make it stop" feeling overcame fans. The other had sparkling defense that began with the first out, a pitcher who gave up just three hits in six innings and a productive day at the plate all around.

If you were expecting the first team to be the Detroit Tigers, you would be wrong. The normally zip-locked Kansas City Royals defense came undone at the seams, while the Tigers remained airtight. It took a brutal outfield collision in the seventh inning to allow the Royals to come within arm's reach of the Tigers, nearly taking right fielder, Torii Hunter, along with them.

"It just kept snowballing and he couldn't make that pitch," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "Usually, he has the ability to make that one pitch ... They just found holes."

It was an oddity that the Tigers took full advantage of. It's not one that normally presents itself and the Tigers can't expect a repeat performance on Tuesday; it would be unrealistic. When it happened though, the Tigers didn't miss an opportunity that it presented itself gift-wrapped in a bright shiny bow.

"The Royals don't usually, they don't beat themselves defensively," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "They're a pretty good defensive team, very athletic team. The error by Hosmer, very uncharacteristic. He's one of the best in the game over there at first base. I wouldn't expect that to happen a lot in games with them, but when they come we're happy. When the opportunity comes we take advantage of it."

The Tigers can't wait for the Royals to come undone again. They have their own job to do and they've only got 18 games left to get it done. As a player, seeing mistakes like those made in the game on Monday come as a double-edged sword. It could just as easily have been the Tigers on the losing side of a defensive battle, one that was not lost on shortstop Andrew Romine.

"That was tough," Romine said. "To be honest with you, I told him (Eric Hosmer), "Man, I feel bad for you," because he got two on that. It did hop up on him, and then he flipped it away. That's a tough play."

The Royals have been playing much like the Tigers did in the first half when they were on a roll. Along with that record comes the confidence of a team rarely beaten and that's hard to pick at or even destroy. But it's not impossible, as the Tigers found out the hard way. It's why Monday's performance against the Royals' briefly sloppy defense was so important.

The two errors (both fielding and throwing) charged to Hosmer in the second inning allowed two unearned runs to score. It gave the Tigers the extra boost they needed, and Hosmer admitted his double-error began a spiral of events that eventually culminated in a six-run third inning for the Tigers. With Justin Verlander having a good day on the mound, the Royals were unable to fully recover, try as they might.

"A bad error on my part really put us in a hole," Hosmer said. "We battled all the way, tried to chip away. Just couldn't chip away enough."

Keeping the Tigers' defense on its toes like it was Monday is going to be essential if the Tigers are to take the series or complete a sweep. The Royals are at an advantage while the Tigers are fighting an uphill battle, one that will likely be fought until the last day of the season.

Luckily for the Tigers, this series has given them an extra push because of the sense of urgency and focus that might not ordinarily be there, along with the knowledge of the ramifications that a series like this brings.

"I thought going in there would be more energy," Ausmus said. "We're staring up at them in the standings so this is our opportunity and we're trying to take advantage of it. I think there was more energy and I think the concentration level was probably a tick higher as well."

At least for the first game, the Tigers took full advantage of defensive mistakes and an off-day on the mound for the Royals. As good as the Royals' starting rotation is though, as a rule, the Royals' bullpen is hard to score runs off of.

Implosions aren't a common occurrence for the Royals, and Ausmus acknowledged his team may have to press hard and often earlier in the game because the game feels shortened by a solid opposing bullpen.

"If they've got the lead, it's gonna be tough to score at all," he said. "Maybe even tough to get a baserunner. You might do something earlier in the game that you wouldn't do normally."

With what the Tigers have (or rather, haven't) done defensively at times, they can't afford to wait out the starting pitcher to get to the bullpen. If the Tigers' defense isn't performing, it's more likely they'll already be in a hole they can't climb out of and they can't afford that this late in the season.

Fortunately, their defense has shone in the last two days and the weight of this series should keep their focus.