The Tigers are normally a team that punishes left-handed starting pitchers, but they had lost three of their previous four matchups against southpaws. Moreover, they didn't hit any of those four particularly well. For a lineup based around right-handed power hitters, with Curtis Granderson the one left-handed power source, that was a concern.
Chen seemingly was on his way to making it tough on them again by retiring seven of Detroit's first eight batters. Miguel Cabrera's first-inning solo homer was Detroit's lone hit out of its first 10 batters until Placido Polanco took Chen deep in the third inning to score Adam Everett following his one-out walk.
Once again, though, Chen seemingly settled down. It wasn't until another Everett walk, this one in the fifth, that the Tigers could really put up a big inning.
Chen (0-3) had retired five straight before that walk, and he got a foulout from Granderson after that. He was effectively wild at that point, even as he fell behind on a 3-1 count to Polanco. He spotted a fastball on the inside corner that Polanco watched to run the count full.
It was a huge pitch for Polanco, but it also guaranteed that Everett would be in motion. Once Polanco chased a fastball on the outside corner and lofted it into short center field, that motion became big.
Ryan Freel, who just joined the Royals this afternoon following a trade from the Cubs a day earlier, was playing relatively deep. He ran in on the ball almost immediately and made a diving attempt at a catch, but it fell just in front of him as Everett rounded third. Moreover, it rolled just far enough away from him that third-base coach Gene Lamont sent Everett home.
Leyland said after the game he had no problem with aggressive plays, even if they don't work out. In this case, their ability to take the game to the Royals proved crucial.
"If you're busting your tail, good things happen," Leyland said. "Everett was busting his tail, and Gene made a great read."
Not only did Everett score without a play at a plate, but Polanco slid into second when the Royals didn't have anyone covering. That freed up first base for Chen to intentionally walk Cabrera and bring up Marcus Thames, who sent Chen's first-pitch fastball into the left-field seats for his third homer in his past four games and a 7-3 lead.
"We need that. That's what Marcus does," Leyland said. "You give Marcus Thames four or five at-bats, and he's bound to run into one. You just hope, like tonight, there's a couple guys on."
Polanco drove in four runs on the night, his season high. It continues his trend of RBIs in bunches; he had driven in runs in just three of his previous 10 games, but all three were three-RBI efforts. This one happened to come on a day when Leyland talked to his players casually about getting the most out of their final games before the All-Star break.
"Everybody's here physically, but you have to make sure you're here mentally," Leyland said. "You have to grind it out, and Polanco grinds it out every single day. He gives you everything he's got, every day he plays. Good things happen when you're into it and fighting your fanny off."
The run support came in handy for Tigers starter Justin Verlander (9-4), who salvaged what was nearly a disastrous outing by settling down after the third inning for his first win in his past three starts.
"I really feel like in the third inning, I settled myself down, tried to get some quick outs and tried to find that rhythm that I had for a long time," Verlander said. "I've been working hard the past couple weeks, trying to get that feel back."
After David DeJesus' bases-clearing triple in the second made the Tigers pay for a catcher's interference call, Verlander retired Willie Bloomquist for the third out on his 55th pitch of the night. He went on to retire 10 straight batters, including six strikeouts on an eight-batter stretch, before Billy Butler's leadoff homer started a two-run sixth.
"The first two innings I thought we did a real good job because he didn't command the ball very well and we got his pitch count up there," Royals manager Trey Hillman said. "Third, fourth and fifth he started commanding the ball really good with all three pitches."
Two of the five runs Verlander allowed were unearned, but he racked up his first double-digit strikeout game since May 14 by fanning 11 Royals.