KANSAS CITY -- The Tigers have a lot to figure out over these final five weeks of the season. They would love to figure out the hex that Jakob Junis placed on them.
They see the pitches that Junis executes against them and wonder why the Royals right-hander doesn't have the same success against everybody else. Against the Tigers this year, he has been unbeatable, including a complete-game six-hitter Tuesday in Detroit's 6-2 loss at Kauffman Stadium.
"It's just like anything when you have confidence," Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. "When pitchers get that, they feel like they've had success, they have confidence, and that rides. That's a big thing in this game. That's a big thing in sports. When you have confidence and you've had success against somebody, you feel good going into that ballgame. And he feels good, obviously."
The Tigers are not a confident team right now, having lost four in a row and 25 of 31 since they were within a game of .500 on June 19. But even when the Tigers were confident early in the season, Junis had their number.
Four times, Junis has faced the Tigers this season, including three times opposite Matthew Boyd. Junis (7-12) improved to 4-0 with a 1.74 ERA in four starts against the Tigers this season. He's 3-12 with a 5.28 ERA against everyone else. Add in a start last September and a relief inning last July, and Junis has picked up a win in each of his last six appearances against Detroit. According to baseball-reference, only Yu Darvish has a longer active streak, having won all seven of his career matchups with the Tigers.
The Tigers are well aware of the disparity, but they also know what they've seen from Junis to frustrate them, from an effective slider to a sneaky fastball that produced three swinging strikes and nine called strikes Tuesday. Aside from back-to-back singles setting up a Jeimer Candelario sacrifice fly in the third inning and JaCoby Jones' eighth-inning solo homer, Detroit didn't do much against either.
"He was ahead in the count pretty much all night," Gardenhire said. "He's pitched really well against us. He knows to cut the ball. He knows how to add and subtract [velocity] a little bit. And that's what he does well against us."
Candelario's RBI was an exercise in plate discipline. The young leadoff hitter declined to chase out of the strike zone after an 0-2 count, setting up a full-count pitch he drove to center for a brief Tigers lead. By contrast, Junis sent several others in the Tigers lineup chasing for seven strikeouts and several other quick outs, especially after the Royals handed him a lead to protect.
"[Michael Mahtook] had a hit on a slider and then I had a hit on a slider, and Candelario had the sac fly on a slider," catcher James McCann said. "And really he kind of went away from it. He started mixing his four-seam and two-seam really well, and wasn't as dominant with the slider. I think he did a good job of adjusting right away."
The lead came from Boyd's lone bad inning, a 32-pitch third in which the Royals batted around, starting with an Raul Mondesi leadoff homer off an 0-2 fastball that was up and over the plate. Two singles, two walks and a Hunter Dozier two-run double compounded the damage. Boyd retired 11 of his final 13 batters from there, lasting six innings, but fell to Junis for the third time this year.
"I got away from the fastball, lost the feel for it as the inning went on," Boyd (8-12) said. "I made the adjustment as we went forward, but unfortunately, it was a five-run [inning]. That's on me. That's my loss right there."
Junis' 1.74 ERA against the Tigers is the lowest single-season ERA by a Royal against Detroit since Zack Greinke posted a 1.00 ERA over 36 innings in 2009.
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Jones' homer wasn't his only highlight in his return from the disabled list. He made a running catch in left-center field to rob an extra-base hit and RBI from Alcides Escobar in the fifth inning, covering 100 feet in 5.2 seconds on a ball that had a 40 percent catch probability. Statcast™ classified the catch as a four-star play.
"Running down a ball in the gap like that just shows me that my leg's fine," said Jones, who had been sidelined since Aug. 13 with a right hamstring strain. "I felt good and made the catch."
Michael Fulmer (3-9, 4.32) will make his second start back from the disabled list Wednesday afternoon as the Tigers' quick trip to Kansas City concludes with a 2:15 p.m. ET matinee against the Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Fulmer, who tossed 4 2/3 scoreless innings against the White Sox last Friday in his return, will be on a 90-pitch count this time around as the Oklahoma native tries for his first win in Kansas City.