DETROIT -- Coming off what he called the hardest day of his short managerial career, Brad Ausmus was in desperate need of a lift Thursday.
Nothing rejuvenated him quite like Joe Nathan, who struck out the side in the ninth inning for his first save since May 29. The Tigers avoided a four-game sweep and snapped the Royals' 10-game winning streak, 2-1, at Comerica Park.
Nathan was on unsteady ground in his role as Detroit's closer entering Thursday's game. He had allowed at least one run in five of his last seven appearances, which meant his recovery Thursday wasn't just expected -- it was needed.
"I think it rubs off on everyone, coaching staff included," Ausmus said of Nathan's performance. "We've missed Joe. We wanted him back to where he was. That looked like him. It lifts you up a little bit."
One of the strikeouts Nathan recorded, Billy Butler, recognized the old version of Nathan -- "the one with a few hundred saves and all those All-Star Games."
"That looked like the Joe Nathan I've faced for years," he said.
While Nathan was hesitant to say he is completely free from the burdens of his rough patch, he pointed to a discovery he made with pitching coach Jeff Jones and bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer as a major breakthrough.
Watching video over the past few days, the trio gleaned that Nathan's arm slot had risen higher than it had traditionally been.
"Sometimes, mechanically, you creep into bad habits," Ausmus said. "You don't even recognize it because it's such a slow process. Now we have so much information, broken down to the inches."
Even with the mechanical problem corrected, Nathan said he still worried entering Thursday's outing that his location would be off.
"Fortunately, everything came out very natural," the 39-year-old closer said. "Location wasn't an issue at all."
Despite collecting only three hits off Kansas City starter Danny Duffy, Detroit now sits a half-game behind the Royals in the American League Central. The Tigers entered this week's series with a 1 1/2-game lead.
Detroit's problems were compounded by an inappropriate remark made by Ausmus following Wednesday's game that he has since repeatedly apologized for. It all added up to a game that the Tigers simply had to have Thursday.
"Even talking to the umpires, they even chime in and say it: 'Everything that can go wrong just seems to be going wrong for you guys,' " said J.D. Martinez, who hit the go-ahead homer in the fourth inning.
Nathan's ninth inning followed seven stellar innings of one-run ball from Anibal Sanchez and a scoreless eighth by Joba Chamberlain.
The Royals scored in the first inning on a pair of doubles. From that point on, however, Sanchez allowed just three more hits and no more runs. For the first time in his career, he didn't record a strikeout.
It was an odd juxtaposition to see Sanchez, who has a 1.94 ERA over his last six starts, go without a punchout, while Nathan, with all his recent struggles, got three of them in one frame.
"He has the ability to make batters miss the barrel -- to get a lot of balls off the end or off the hands," Ausmus said of his starter. "He didn't get the swing and misses."
The Tigers took the lead in the fourth inning, when Austin Jackson led off with a single and Miguel Cabrera doubled to the base of the left-center-field wall, tying the game. Victor Martinez followed with a fly out to right, and Cabrera was caught sleeping returning to second base, allowing the Royals to complete the double play after a Kansas City challenge overturned the initial call that ruled Cabrera safe at second.
The next batter, Martinez, hit his solo shot to right, which held up as the winning run.
"It's a step," Ausmus said. "It's a baby step."
Detroit, which finished the homestand 3-4, now embarks on a nine-game road trip that will begin with three games against the third-place Indians.
Matt Slovin is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.