KANSAS CITY -- Justin Verlander, as usual, was too much for the Royals. But this time, they pushed him to the limit.
Detroit's MVP and Cy Young Award winner and Kansas City's nemsis pitched the Tigers to a 3-2 victory on Monday night, boosting his career record against the Royals to 14-2.
The 14,039 fans at Kauffman Stadium watched the Royals lose their fifth straight game, despite a strong outing by left-hander Danny Duffy. They got some ninth-inning excitement, though, when the Royals got within one run and had the bases loaded.
Virtually everyone in the ballpark expected at some point in that ninth inning that Tigers manager Jim Leyland would bring closer Jose Valverde out of the bullpen.
But Leyland didn't, not after Verlander told him after the eighth inning that he felt great and wanted to finish.
"I told him, 'It's your game. I'm not coming out there to take you out,'" Leyland said. "'If you're going to walk off the mound, you're either going to win it or lose it, because I'm not coming out there. And he won it."
Yes, he did. The game ended when Verlander's 131st pitch, a 100-mph fastball, zipped past Alex Gordon for a called third strike.
The Royals' ninth began with Billy Butler's single. Pinch-runner Jason Bourgeois advanced to third on two groundouts and scored on Humberto Quintero's single off Prince Fielder's glove at first. Verlander walked Mitch Maier and Leyland came to the mound. What did the skipper say?
"He said, 'You're going to get me fired,'" Verlander said.
Leyland went back into the dugout and Verlander promptly hit Alcides Escobar with a pitch to load the bases. Although Verlander had thrown 126 pitches, Leyland let him stay in and pitch to Gordon.
"The last out is the hardest to get in baseball," Verlander said. "And you've got to have a lot of respect for those closers. I know those aren't easy outs to get. I've been there before. Valverde makes it look easy a lot of times, and it's not."
On a 2-2 pitch, Gordon was called out and the game was over.
"He came on strong late, pumping it like we'd seen before," Gordon said. "That last at-bat, he just started coming in on me, just pounding me in and the last one, I guess, he just painted inside. Give him credit, he made a pitch when he had to."
Was it a strike? Teammate Jeff Francoeur, overhearing the question, gave his opinion: "Low and in."
Gordon was more diplomatic.
"He called it a strike, so obviously it was a strike, so that's what happened," Gordon said. "He juiced it up there, it came in and froze me, so good for him."
Gordon, though, gave Royals fans a thrill with a jarring, sprawling catch of Austin Jackson's high popup in the fifth inning. Escobar, the shortstop, was tracking it in short left field. Then here came Gordon, like an express train. He dove straight toward the infield, extended his glove and caught the ball as he slid like a sled across green snow. Gordon, of course, was not equipped with blades, and the trip got a bit bumpy before he skidded to a stop with his chin on the grass. As he got up a bit uncertainly, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
"I got a bad read, broke back and came in," Gordon said. "That's the only play I had, so I was able to make it."
He emerged with a red welt on his forehead.
"Crunched his forehead and nose pretty good when he bounced, but he won a Gold Glove for a reason," manager Ned Yost said. "That was a good example of it right there."
The Tigers found the earlier part of the inning more to their liking, when Jhonny Peralta doubled and Brandon Inge lofted a high drive into the Party Porch in right-center field, 409 feet away. Duffy got the pitch up and the Tigers had a 3-1 lead.
"I made that crucial mistake and you can't make mistakes here," Duffy said.
Jackson began the game with a homer to left field off Duffy. One of those big innings that have been bugging Royals starters loomed when Brennan Boesch's single and Miguel Cabrera's walk followed. But Duffy got Fielder to ground into a double play and Delmon Young flied out.
Verlander wasn't first-inning perfect either. Gordon snapped a 0-for-9 skid with a double to right field and was bunted to third by Chris Getz. Eric Hosmer walked and Butler blooped a single down the right-field line to score Gordon. But Verlander's two strikeouts ended the inning.
"There were very few pitches that he threw tonight that were over the heart of the plate," Butler said. "He was locating the outer half, going in and out and reaching back for triple digits when he wanted it. There's a reason why he's one of the best, if not the best, right-handers in the game."
Could the Royals, after a crushing sweep of a series by the Indians, find some solace in playing it tough with Verlander and the division-leading Tigers?
Maier took a realistic view.
"There are no moral victories in this game," Maier said. "You either win or lose."
Duffy called the Royals better than the Tigers and sees evidence of a change in fortunes.
"We're close," Duffy said. "We're there. We're bummed out, obviously, tonight but we've got a lot of fire in our eyes."
Yost, too, was talking optimistically.
"I feel like we're real close to getting it turned around," Yost said. "I think we're real close to getting on a roll."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.