When Kansas City took three straight from Detroit to open the season, the wins provided shock value. After all, the Tigers entered the year expected to be among the American League contenders. That series provided the first hint that it wasn't to be.
Detroit's fate out of the playoff picture was sealed long before the Royals came to town this week, but it was the decisiveness of the three games that provided the shock factor. The Royals didn't merely win, they controlled the series. The Tigers never led at any point in the three games, and they were held scoreless over an 18-inning stretch between Jeff Larish's sixth-inning RBI single in Monday's opener and Mike Hessman's seventh-inning solo homer Wednesday.
For all the success the Tigers had in Kansas City this summer, the Royals won seven of nine games at Comerica Park, their best showing since 2003. Six of those wins came in what might well serve as part of the bookends on the Tigers' frustrating season.
"We're just in a horrible funk," manager Jim Leyland said after Wednesday's loss. "We're way out of sync right now, and we have been for a little bit. It's not a matter of guys not caring, guys not trying. That's not it. We're just in a year-end funk, and to be honest with you, I think it plays mind games with you. You're trying to run as hard as you can, and sometimes you can't.
"Kansas City, I thought they kicked our fannies. They're pumped up. They're trying to accomplish something -- obviously to stay ahead of us. I don't mean to say it's any different for us, but I'm sure the games between the White Sox and Minnesota [this week] are a little more intense -- crowd, players, meaningful games."
There was intensity evident on Tigers starter Nate Robertson's face, as he tried to get through the decisive fifth inning. Unfortunately, the emotion was not working in his favor.
His misstep to not step on first base for what would've been the final out of the second inning came back to haunt him with an unearned run, but he had recovered to pitch relatively well through four innings. He was inducing ground balls, in stark contrast to his home-run troubles earlier this summer, and he was denying extra-base hits.
Then came the seven-run fifth inning.
"I was throwing the ball well -- that's what really stinks about it," Robertson said. "I didn't really carry any baggage into this one. My mindset was [that] what's done is done, go out there and finish strong. I was throwing the ball well and I gave them an early free pass in the fifth. It just went the wrong way."
It started with a leadoff single from Michigan native and former University of Toledo product Mitch Maier, but to Robertson, the key was his one-out walk to Esteban German two batters later. He had recovered from Maier's single to get a first-out flyout from Joey Gathright, and then he fell behind on a 3-0 count to German with the middle of the Royals order.
"There were no real threats at that point in time," Robertson. "To give him a free pass, that's kind of a no-no."
A Mike Aviles single loaded the bases to set Jose Guillen's RBI fielder's-choice ground ball for the second out -- not what Robertson wanted, but still a reasonable deficit at 3-0. But five straight Royals reached base safely from there, the first three off Robertson.
"He was aggressive," Leyland said. "I thought he had some life to his ball. But every little thing that doesn't go right, you can't let it ruin your evening."
Again, Robertson gave up a five-pitch walk, this time to Ryan Shealy with two outs. Alex Gordon singled in a run, then Robertson and John Buck battled to a 2-2 count. Robertson looked for a called third strike on the inside corner but didn't get it, and he showed his frustration in home-plate umpire Tom Hallion's sight when he got the ball back.
He missed on the payoff pitch to walk in Guillen. As he walked to the dugout, he glared in Hallion's direction and exchanged words.
"I'm kind of ashamed of myself, showing the emotion and frustration right there, slapping at the ball like that," Robertson said. "That can't happen. I guess it just came to a head there, letting frustration out."
It was partly the frustration of a season where the finishing pitches didn't seem to be there often enough. He held opponents under a .200 average in two-strike counts in each of his previous four full Major League seasons, but that average rose to .234 this year with a .290 on-base percentage entering Wednesday. With two outs and runners in scoring position this year, he had given up a .351 average and .448 on-base percentage entering this start.
"He was upset," Leyland said, "and probably had a right to be. But that's just the way it is. You can't let every little thing ruin your outing time after time. That can't happen. ...
"I actually thought Nate threw the ball a little better, but I can't sit here and tell you when you give up 10 runs that the pitching was pretty good."
Four of those runs came in the two batters after Robertson left. Chris Lambert lost Tony Pena Jr. to another bases-loaded walk, before Maier's triple cleared the bases and essentially put the game away.
Placido Polanco's three-run homer in the ninth closed the gap, but the Royals still swept by a combined 21-6 margin.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.