KANSAS CITY -- Anibal Sanchez overcame his own spotty command, his catcher's drop on the would-be third out with the bases loaded, and a handful of runners he stranded in scoring position. He could not overcome his team's offense.
On a night when the restrictions came off after Sanchez's shoulder strain from last month, that was another sign that his season is back on track, complete with the irony of Friday's 1-0 Tigers loss to the Royals.
Sanchez had his highest walk total in a Tigers uniform, and his highest total in two years. After falling into just 11 3-0 counts all year, he worked his way into four of them on Friday. None of those runners came around.
Sanchez's downfall, the game's only run, scored on a first-inning RBI single from Billy Butler on an 0-2 pitch. It scored Alex Gordon, who reached base after another 0-2 count.
Sanchez left five runners in scoring position over the next five innings, stranding the bases loaded in the sixth with a strikeout of Alcides Escobar that might well have summed up Sanchez's night.
After falling behind on a 2-0 count, Sanchez seemingly escaped when Escobar hit a popup on the next pitch. Catcher Alex Avila's errant drop, however, extended the at-bat, which Escobar ran full before Sanchez spotted a full-count pitch to escape.
"I feel good because I kept the score right there," Sanchez shrugged. "We have to give credit to [Ervin] Santana. He threw a good ballgame, there's no question about it."
Make no mistake, Sanchez's outing could've been a whole lot worse. Still, he deserved a better fate for the outing he actually had.
With six innings of four-hit, one-run ball, Sanchez (7-7) has enough innings again to qualify among the leaders in ERA. He cracked the top five by lowering his ERA to 2.85, tying him with White Sox All-Star Chris Sale. They're also the only pitchers in the American League's top 10 without winning records.
The Tigers, owners of one of baseball's most potent lineups, have scored three runs or fewer in all seven of Sanchez's losses, as well as his two no-decisions. They've also scored six runs or more in all seven of Sanchez's victories, including three 10-run outbursts.
Yet on a night when he fell on the losing end of the pitching duel with Santana, the lasting image arguably was Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain catching drives to the fence in the deepest part of Kauffman Stadium.
"I thought we swung the bats better than the results showed, I will say that," manager Jim Leyland said. "But Santana pitched really good, and the center fielder covered a lot of real estate."
The Tigers centered three balls, hit them deep and got three outs to show for them. Torii Hunter's first-inning drive sent Cain, who was playing shallow, crashing into the fence.
"I crushed that ball," Hunter said. "I hit that slider hard and it wasn't going out at all."
Victor Martinez's fifth-inning loft sent Cain into a race to the warning track. Miguel Cabrera's seventh-inning drive, by contrast, saw Cain seemingly teasing the Tigers with how easily he camped under it.
"I got great jumps on them, read them great off the bat and was able to make some plays," Cain said. "Ervin did an outstanding job today, so for me to go make some plays for him was great."
Those were plays that could've turned into doubles with a bad step here or there. They also comprised just about all the solid contact the Tigers made all evening.
Detroit arrived at the ballpark early on Friday afternoon and took extra batting practice to try to shake off the rust of an extended All-Star break. It didn't make much difference.
The Royals went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, thanks to Sanchez's key pitches. The Tigers couldn't get a runner past first base against Santana (6-6), who allowed two singles and a walk over 7 1/3 innings before relievers Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland finished the shutout.
"I think the success that [Santana] got today was because he threw a lot of strikes," Sanchez said. "He threw the first pitch for strikes. It made the difference."
Hunter played behind Santana when he threw his no-hitter two years ago. Friday's performance didn't shock him.
"He got us," Hunter said. "You have to tip your cap."
Bad luck, bad hitting or excellent pitching, the bottom line was the Tigers' third 1-0 loss of the year. Their other two came to the Pirates in early May, both of those in extra innings. While Rick Porcello and Doug Fister took no-decisions in those, Sanchez was left holding this one.
It was the 20th time this year the Tigers have held an opponent or one or fewer runs, third-most among AL teams according to stats guru Bill Chuck. Their third such loss in those games, however, tied them with the Cubs for most in the Majors.
Their last 1-0 loss in nine innings was last Aug. 22, also to the Royals in Kansas City. Sanchez took the loss in that one, too, thanks to eight scoreless innings from Bruce Chen. He avenged that decision in September with a three-hitter at Comerica Park.
Add up the numbers, and Sanchez has given up two runs on 14 hits in 22 innings against the Royals since joining the AL a year ago. He has a 1-2 record to go with it.
"Pitchers' duel, old-fashioned," Butler summed up.