Nick Castellanos, meanwhile, took advantage of the rookie treatment and essentially beat Danny Duffy.
"He's coming through," Torii Hunter said of Castellanos' three-RBI game that put the Tigers in front before a six-run ninth inning iced a 9-2 victory at Kauffman Stadium.
Hunter defied his age with a tumbling catch to rob a hit in the gap, then belted a 404-foot home run to put three runs on the board in the ninth.
"Skill," he said jokingly.
But perhaps most importantly, Drew Smyly put to rest his stereotype as a bullpen guy and won the battle of lefty relievers turned starters.
And after his career-best seven shutout innings in just his third start of the season, the Tigers are on the verge of a winning streak that could put to rest their plodding April.
All they need in order to finish their week-long five-game road trip unbeaten is a win from Justin Verlander in Sunday's series finale against a team he has handled well over the years. Detroit took the first two games of the series with Kansas City behind very good pitching performances from their back two starters.
Smyly and Rick Porcello (Friday's winner) combined for 14 innings of two-run ball on just six hits with 12 strikeouts in the first two games. Where Porcello was building off momentum, however, Smyly got stingy in his first start in a week and a half.
Between off-days and rainouts, the Tigers haven't needed a fifth starter very often. They wouldn't have needed Smyly again this soon if Anibal Sanchez wasn't on the disabled list. Smyly not only shook off the rust, he shook off any threat from the Royals.
In the process, Smyly probably put to rest any lingering question about his future role. Even if it wasn't a point he had to prove to Tigers personnel, it was a point he wanted to make.
"I hope it showed everybody," Smyly said. "To be honest, I'm kind of sick of the bullpen talk, that it's where I should go. I've been a starter my whole life. I went to the bullpen last year to help the team. I'd want to do whatever they want, but I've always thought of myself as a starter, and I think [Tigers personnel] all think of me as a starter. Hopefully that'll put the talk to rest."
By using different pitches and changing approaches to hitters the second and third time through the lineup, Smyly showed he could make the adjustment. By getting through seven innings on just 93 pitches, he showed he could sustain an outing through the middle innings.
"Smyly was outstanding," manager Brad Ausmus said. "He was throwing strikes. He was using all his pitches."
Instead of pounding the strike zone with fastballs and cutters, like he often did as a reliever, Smyly mixed in changeups, sliders and even a few two-seamers on his way to changing the look. He induced 11 swings and misses from fastballs, sliders and a changeup, according to data from MLB.com Gameday and brooksbaseball.net, and he threw strikes with all of them.
"He doesn't really ever throw the same pitch twice in a row," Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "He was throwing that fastball, that slider and that slow curve when he was ahead. Just mixing it well and hitting his spots. He was real effective."
Smyly allowed just two runners in scoring position, and received help from the Tigers' outfield to strand them. The first was Hunter's catch in the gap in right-center field to rob Alcides Escobar, stranding Gordon at second base in what was then a scoreless game.
"Torii's catch was a game changer," Smyly said. "That set the tone, I think."
Said Hunter: "I was playing him a little oppo. Escobar likes to hit the ball to right field a lot. He just happened to get it in the gap and I just got on my horse. He put a charge in it for a little guy and I did what I had to do. Wasn't trying to dive, just kind of rolled around."
In addition to keeping the game scoreless, it kept the Royals hitless until Hosmer doubled with one out in the fourth. With Hosmer on third, Smyly struck out Billy Butler -- 5-for-6 against him entering the night -- before Detroit's defense picked up their starter again with a catch at the fence from Austin Jackson.
At that point, Smyly was protecting a 1-0 lead his offense had built in the top half of the inning on three walks and Castellanos' sac fly. It was a sinking liner that Gordon caught near his shoestrings while charging in, but Cabrera surprised him by taking off from third.
"My decision, it was because he faked the throw to second base and gave me a chance to react and try to score," Cabrera said.
Gordon's throw never made it as Cabrera rumbled home smiling. It was the second time this season that Cabrera had deked an outfielder, having tagged up from second and going to third on Mike Trout two weeks ago.
"My first instinct was, I saw Victor [Martinez] off the bag at second and I was going to try to double him up, and get out of the inning right there," Gordon said. "I wanted to come up throwing and at first I didn't see anybody on second base so that's why I didn't throw. ... After that, it was just too late to get Cabrera."
After Cabrera doubled to lead off the sixth, Castellanos let him and Martinez stroll home with a double deep into the right-field gap. Kelvin Herrera's 99-mph fastball provided much of the power, but Castellanos' quick bat provided the contact, sending a line drive past Nori Aoki's attempt at a highlight catch in right.
Castellanos' third three-RBI performance of his rookie season moved him into tie with Cabrera for the team lead with 17 RBIs.