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Liriano cruises until 6th as 'pen falters in loss

Gardenhire forced to mix and match as some relievers were unavailable
MLB.com @beckjason

DETROIT -- Francisco Liriano threw a no-hitter for Ron Gardenhire seven years ago on 123 pitches. That was in his sixth start of the 2011 season for the Twins, and he shut down the White Sox despite six walks.

As Liriano took the mound at Comerica Park for the sixth inning at 79 pitches with the Royals lineup coming around for a third time, Gardenhire had that familiar feeling.

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DETROIT -- Francisco Liriano threw a no-hitter for Ron Gardenhire seven years ago on 123 pitches. That was in his sixth start of the 2011 season for the Twins, and he shut down the White Sox despite six walks.

As Liriano took the mound at Comerica Park for the sixth inning at 79 pitches with the Royals lineup coming around for a third time, Gardenhire had that familiar feeling.

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"I've had that before," the Tigers manager said. "It's never any fun."

It was no fun for him Sunday, either, but for different reasons. As he surveyed the damage from the 8-5 loss to the Royals, his veteran starter was the least of his concerns.

Video: KC@DET: Cabrera, Liriano combine for terrific play

Royals, Tigers trade nifty flips against each other

Veteran setup man Alex Wilson has been struggling, essentially since Spring Training, and has given up three go-ahead home runs in nine appearances.

"I'm just kind of behind the eight ball now as far as needing to have good outings, making it happen every time out," Wilson said. "When something like this happens, it obviously gets magnified."

Gardenhire has alternatives. But while Drew VerHagen has looked fantastic in lower-leverage situations, his numbers in close games have been vastly different, including Sunday's entry in what was a 5-5 game.

"He almost hit two guys in the head, and that's scary," Gardenhire said. "We needed him to get a couple outs, and it didn't work out."

Video: KC@DET: Gardenhire on bullpen struggles in 8-5 loss

Considering the series split finished a 5-3 homestand, Detroit's first winning record for a home stretch of eight games or more since last June into July, the Tigers won't complain too loudly. Yet as Gardenhire tries to figure out who he can trust as he sorts out bullpen roles, Sunday's performances have to provide pause.

"Bullpen's doing a good job," Gardenhire said. "We were mixing and matching as best we could. Some pitchers weren't available. Other guys are going to have to come in and get outs."

• Tigers see versatile Saupold filling key role

Though Liriano held the Royals hitless for five innings, he walked three batters in that span. Even if he had carried Detroit's 2-0 lead into the seventh, Gardenhire said, he would not have gone far past 100 pitches.

 Video: KC@DET: Machado hustles into second for a double

Inefficient innings and high pitch counts are part of Liriano's game. Though he talked in Spring Training about retiring batters in three pitches or less, he has pitched long enough that the Tigers know what to expect. At some point, no-hitter or not, Detroit's bullpen was getting into that game.

Daniel Stumpf was on rest after pitching four of the previous five days, including four outs Saturday. Warwick Saupold and Daniel Norris were off as well. Wilson showed signs of hope with two hitless innings Friday.

Whit Merrifield ended any no-hit hopes by turning on an 0-2 pitch -- a high, inside fastball -- for a home run leading off the sixth. Cheslor Cuthbert's ensuing double and Jorge Soler's one-out walk brought on Wilson.

Video: KC@DET: Miggy plates Martin to hand Tigers early lead

Though Abraham Almonte's grand slam was the crushing blow, Wilson's preceding walk to Paulo Orlando was his real downfall. He lost Orlando after an 0-2 count with four consecutive balls, three well off the outside corner, loading the bases and forcing him to challenge Almonte after a first-pitch ball.

"Tried to throw a two-seamer down and away, and I yanked it," Wilson said.

Said Gardenhire: "The ball's coming out of his hand fine. He's just missing."

A three-run Tigers rally in the bottom of the inning evened the game for the seventh for VerHagen (0-1), who walked two of the three batters he faced. Mike Moustakas' three-run homer off Buck Farmer put the Royals up for good.

Video: KC@DET: Castellanos hits second RBI single of the day

SOUND SMART
Opposing batters are 4-for-29 with four walks and nine strikeouts against VerHagen in low- and middle-leverage situations, according to Baseball-Reference.com. They're 2-for-3 with three walks in high-leverage situations after Sunday's outing.

HE SAID IT
"Really, walks are what killed us." -- catcher James McCann

UP NEXT
The Tigers are off Monday before heading to Pittsburgh for a three-game Interleague rematch with the Pirates, who swept them in Detroit to open the season. Jordan Zimmermann (1-0, 7.71 ERA) gets the start in Tuesday's opener at 7:05 p.m. ET from PNC Park. Chad Kuhl (2-1, 4.57 ERA) starts for the Pirates.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.

Detroit Tigers, Francisco Liriano, Drew VerHagen, Alex Wilson