Right-hander Brad Keller took the baton from Zack Greinke and turned in a tone-setting performance for the Kansas City Royals as they started their six-game road trip off with a victory against AL Central Division rivals the Detroit Tigers.
Greinke’s stellar outing paced the Royals to a victory on Wednesday in the final game of their homestand, and Keller tossed six scoreless innings on Friday to start their visit to the Motor City off on a positive note.
The offense provided enough wiggle room, and recently-promoted rookie Vinnie Pasquantino belted his first major-league home run in the Royals’ 3-1 win over the Tigers in front of an announced 24,349 in the first of a three-game weekend series at Comerica Park on Friday night.
Pasquantino’s home run also marked his first hit in the majors.
First baseman Hunter Dozier also homered for the Royals, while outfielders Andrew Benintendi (2 for 4, RBI) and Michael A. Taylor (2 for 4, double) had two hits apiece. Whit Merrifield (1 for 3) had a hit, a walk, a stolen base and a run scored.
Keller allowed five hits and two walks in six innings. He earned his third win of the season and his second in his past three starts. He credited a “tweak” he made with the coaching staff to his slider between starts to get better depth on that pitch.
“We found a little something that we could tweak, and I felt like I did a good job of carrying that into the game,” Keller said. “Early on, I felt like I got the good shape of it and just kind of ran with it. I had good fastball command to both sides of the plate. So anytime I’ve got the good slide with good fastball command, I feel like I was in command for most of the game.”
The slider has been the bread-and-butter pitch in Keller’s arsenal since he reached the majors, and he threw it 34 percent of the time against the Tigers.
Royals manager Mike Matheny described Keller’s fastball, which averaged 95.2 mph in the outing, as “explosive.” Keller complemented the four-seam fastball with a sinker tailor-made for inducing ground balls.
“He was tracking towards one of the best we’ve seen from him,” Matheny said of Keller’s outing. “Getting ahead, using and trusting his fastball. He was so efficient. He was tracking towards what looked like and what might have been a complete game. But he did a great job of making tough pitches when he got into trouble, but he wasn’t even in trouble much until late in his count.”
The Royals (28-47) gave Keller a 3-0 lead to work with by the middle innings.
Merrifield scored the game’s first run in the third inning after he smacked a one-out double into the left-field corner and then stole third base to put himself a heartbeat away from scoring. Benintendi then swatted a RBI single to left field, his second hit of the game, to give the Royals a 1-0 advantage.
Then the Royals tacked on two more runs against Tigers starting pitcher Michael Pineda — who had been on the IL since May 15 with a fractured middle finger — in the fourth on back-to-back home runs by Pasquantino and Dozier.
It was the second time the Royals hit back-to-back homers this season, and it created a three-run cushion.
Meanwhile, the Tigers didn’t hit a ball in the air until a fly out in the fourth inning. They put two men on in the second on an infield single and a single to center. Taylor threw out Robbie Grossman as he tried to go first-to-third on the single for the final out of that inning.
The Tigers created traffic in the sixth with a leadoff single followed by a walk, but Keller retired the heart of their order — Javier Baez, Miguel Cabrera and Harold Castro — to strand both runners.
Keller used his slider to get Cabrera, who entered the day batting .300, to swing and miss on a full count. Cabrera walked back to the dugout barking to himself after swinging fruitlessly.
“That’s the guy we saw early in the season,” Matheny said of Keller. “And that’s the one I expect we’re going to see the rest of the way.”
Keller pitched to two batters in the seventh inning, but did not record an out. His final pitch was a 1-2 changeup that squirted away from him and hit Tigers rookie Spencer Torkelson in the helmet. Torkelson left the game with a member of the training staff.
“I hate that it ended that way, with the changeup that got away from me and hit Torkelson in the head,” Keller said. “That’s really tough to see. I’m happy to hear that he’s doing alright.”
Relief pitchers Taylor Clarke (one inning), Jose Cuas (2/3 innings) and Scott Barlow (1 1/3 innings) preserved the win for the Royals.
Clarke entered with two men on and no outs in the seventh after Keller had given up a walk and hit Torkelson with a pitch.
Barlow, who allowed one run on a sacrifice fly in the ninth, recorded his 11th save. It was the sixth time he recorded at least four outs to get a save this season.