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KC@DET: Castellanos reaches on an error, plates one

DETROIT -- For the first time this far into a season since 2003, the Royals are leading the American League Central. For the first time at any point in the season in nearly a full year, the Tigers aren't.

For the first extended stretch in the Tigers' reign over the division, their starting pitching has gone from clear strength to a liability.

For the first time in Brad Ausmus' brief tenure as manager, the frustration is impossible to hide.

Twenty-eight games and 19 losses after being grounded in Boston, it's not just one of those stretches for the Tigers anymore.

"Quite frankly, I stopped saying every team goes through this about a week ago," Ausmus admitted after a seven-run Royals second inning off Max Scherzer led to the latest loss, 11-4, Tuesday night at Comerica Park.

"Teams do go through losing streaks and slumps, but this has been a little bit more than what it should've been. And the question is: How do you fix it?"

That question pushes the standings down the list of Detroit's worries right now.

"I don't care who's in first place until the end of the season," Ausmus continued. "Anyone who's in first place before that doesn't matter unless you finish in first place. But we need to play better baseball."

If the red-hot Royals had battled their way to close wins the last two nights, the Tigers could chalk it up to a hot team. But not only did the Royals rough up a Cy Young winner for the second consecutive night, they handed Scherzer some of the greatest damage of his career -- 10 runs on 10 hits in four-plus innings.

A seven-run second marked the worst inning of Scherzer's career in terms of damage, and all seven runs reached base before he recorded his first out. He tied his career high in runs allowed from 2010, bumping his season ERA from 3.05 to 3.84 in one night.

With that, the Tigers and Royals flipped places in the AL Central standings, Detroit now a half-game back. The last time the Tigers didn't hold at least a share of the division lead was last July 2 -- when Miguel Cabrera was just beginning to deal with back issues, and then-Tiger Omar Infante hit the disabled list with a bruised ankle.

That team lost a five-game division lead in two weeks thanks to a scoring slump, then rattled off five straight wins in Toronto and Cleveland and led the division the rest of the season. The Tigers' current skid has lasted longer, and includes Infante haunting his former team for six RBIs over the last two nights.

Of greater concern: Unlike last year, the starting pitching has shown cracks that are proving difficult to patch.

"I know they're better than this," Ausmus said. "Clearly, they're better than this. Everybody in this room knows they're better than this. They've set a high standard, but they've set a high standard because they're good. And you don't just lose it overnight."

While Verlander's struggles have drawn almost all the focus, Scherzer has quietly dealt with his own.

His three-hit shutout last Thursday in Chicago ended a streak of four outings without a quality start, but it didn't solve the problem, not to him. Add in Tuesday's damage, and he has allowed 30 runs on 53 hits over 39 1/3 innings in his last six starts.

"With two strikes, I'm just not putting guys away," Scherzer said. "If I'm throwing offspeed out of the zone, it's too far out of the zone. I'm throwing fastballs over the middle of the plate, not located. Those are the types of results I'm not getting."

It was a seven-run, seven-hit Royals second inning that sapped 51 pitches out of Scherzer's arsenal on a 90-degree summer evening. He gave up eight consecutive baserunners to start the inning, then retired the side in order when the Royals had hit around.

He gave up more home runs in that fateful second inning (two) than he had in any game since last August. Both came from left-handed hitters, the guys Scherzer held down to find his breakthrough.

Alex Gordon jumped on a 1-0 fastball and sent it deep to right after Scherzer fell behind on a first-pitch changeup. It was Gordon's eighth homer of the year, and the third of his career off Scherzer. Mike Moustakas shrugged off a curveball and changeup off the plate after a 1-2 count, then kept a hanging changeup fair down the right-field line for his seventh homer of the year and his first ever off Scherzer.

What haunted Scherzer more than anything, though, was the batter in between.

"The at-bat that really drove me crazy tonight was Salvador Perez," Scherzer said. "I got 0-2 on him. I'm in the count where I'm in control, I'm in the driver's seat. I'm ready to collect an out. Instead, I throw four straight balls and walk him."

Infante, too, had an 0-2 count after three straight singles loaded the bases following Moustakas. After a changeup in the dirt, he sent a 95-mph fastball back through the middle for two more runs and a 7-0 lead.

Once Scherzer ended the inning with three consecutive strikes past Gordon, he whirled his head and looked up in exasperation. It wasn't quite the same impact as Verlander shouting into his glove Monday night, but it was similar frustration.

"When I watch video, you see these things happen over and over," Scherzer said. "The 1-2 counts that I'm stressing to get into, and I'm not putting guys away -- that's the frustrating part.

"I have to make a few adjustments and make my offspeed pitches better. At the same time, now that I know that, I have the mentality to go and fix it. It should be fun to do over the next four days, and I'm looking forward to my start against Cleveland [on Sunday]."

That's one rotation turn away.

"This isn't the way they normally pitch," Ausmus said. "You certainly can't take them out of the rotation. That's just not an option. The only option is to fix it."

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