Tigers begin four-game battle for division lead Monday

Tigers lead Royals by 1.5 games in AL Central

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DETROIT - When the Detroit Tigers (36-29) won their sixth straight game back on May 18, they stretched their lead in the AL Central Division to a comfortable seven games over the Kansas City Royals.

Now, nearly a month later, Kansas City is the hottest team in baseball: Winning seven straight games before earning a chance to climb to the top of the division against the first-place Tigers this week.

Despite winning three of their last four games, the Tigers have seen their lead over the Royals shrink to just 1.5 games. Kansas City's resurgence is largely thanks to an improved performance within the division. The Royals started the season 5-15 against Central Division foes, but six straight wins in those contests have helped them climb back into second place with four games against the Tigers on the horizon.

Detroit hopes that struggling right-hander Justin Verlander can get back on track against a team that he has dominated throughout his career. In 31 lifetime starts Verlander has struck out 192 Royals batters while surrendering 186 hits. The veteran is 1-0 in two starts against Kansas City this season after allowing five earned runs in 13 innings.

But the Royals will see a very different Verlander on Monday. The 31-year-old is mired in the worst slump of his career, surrendering five or more earned runs in five of his last six starts. He allowed 26 earned runs in those six starts en route to inflating his ERA from 2.67 to 4.61.

On Monday Verlander will match up against a pitcher heading in the opposite direction, first-year Royal Jason Vargas. Vargas has been excellent in two June starts, posting a 2.87 ERA in 15 2/3 innings while picking up his sixth win of the year.

Detroit dominated Vargas in the last meeting between the two on May 4. The 31-year-old was bounced after surrendering seven runs in five innings, including home runs from Nick Castellanos and Miguel Cabrera. As a team the Tigers tallied 11 hits against the left-hander and tagged him with his first loss as a member of the Royals.

Ian Kinsler is very familiar with Vargas after facing the former Mariner during his days with the Texas Rangers. In 50 at-bats Kinsler owns a .320 average against the lefty with six doubles, two home runs and five RBI, all best on the team.

In the Royals' dugout, Billy Butler is primed for a big night against Verlander. Butler hits .432 (32/74) against his rival with two home runs and 11 RBI.

After struggling through a 6-16 stretch that brought the rest of the division back within striking distance of the first-place Tigers, the starting pitching has rebounded from its struggles and helped Detroit win three of its last four games. Max Scherzer's first career complete game sparked a run of four straight quality starts for Tiger starters who allowed just seven runs in 28 1/3 innings during the stretch.

Verlander will look to extend that streak to five straight games on Monday, but the former MVP has recorded just one quality start over the last month.

Detroit is 5-0 against Kansas City this season. Though this series was originally scheduled to end on Wednesday, the teams will play a second afternoon game on Thursday to make up for a rainout on April 3.

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