DETROIT -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland raved about the Royals' athleticism all weekend, noting the pressure they can put on teams with their speed.
"Some of them, like [Emilio] Bonifacio, they can just fly," Leyland said.
At the same time, however, Leyland acknowledged that they're exploiting a weakness the Tigers have displayed long before the Royals came to town. Detroit's pitching staff -- a group that has been shutting down hitters for much of the year -- has not done the same with baserunners.
Several reasons are behind that, not the least of which being Alex Avila's absence behind the plate over the past week. What concerns Leyland in particular, though, is the pitchers' predictability on the mound with runners on base. They're making it easy on would-be basestealers to time their moves and make their jumps.
"They're timing our guys' delivery," Leyland said Saturday, "so we have to make sure that we hold the ball, don't hold the ball, hold it a little longer. We have to vary that, because they're going on it."
It's a balancing act for teams, weighing how much focus they want their pitchers to put towards runners on base vs. hitters at the plate. Retire the hitters, the popular thought goes, and the baserunner is going to have a hard time getting all the way around the bases.
The Royals are putting a serious test to that thought. They went 8-for-8 on stolen bases over the first four games of the series, including 2-for-2 in Saturday's eighth inning to set up the game-tying run. Bonifacio went from first base on a leadoff single to third with a stolen base and a throwing error from catcher Bryan Holaday, allowing him to score easily on an ensuing single from Chris Getz.
On the flip side, Jeremy Bonderman's errant pickoff throw Friday night allowed Getz to get from first to third base in the seventh inning and score an insurance run.
The Tigers entered Sunday having surrendered 101 stolen bases this season, third-highest in the American League behind the Red Sox (104) and Angels (102). Only Toronto has a higher stolen-base percentage allowed than Detroit.
Miggy doing heavy lifting in the nick of time
DETROIT -- Miguel Cabrera's opposite-field home run off Aaron Crow on Saturday night was his first walk-off homer of the year. It was obviously not his first bit of late-inning dramatics.
In a season with no shortage of statistics from Cabrera to marvel, that's just the latest. With Cabrera's blast Saturday, three of his past seven home runs have come in the ninth inning. Two were his shots off Mariano Rivera last weekend at Yankee Stadium.
Add in his go-ahead shot to straightaway center off rookie Danny Salazar in Cleveland on Aug. 7, and four of Cabrera's last eight home runs have come in the eighth inning or later in close games. Ten of his last 11 homers have either tied the game or put Detroit ahead.
That still might not be enough to give Cabrera the momentum he needs in his quest for a second consecutive Triple Crown. Even with his 40th homer of the year Sunday afternoon off Bruce Chen, he trails Baltimore's Chris Davis by four. He continues to hold off Davis in the RBI race, 119 to 113. His third consecutive batting title is all but assured if he stays healthy and productive down the stretch.
The gradual improvement in Cabrera's health and mobility over the last few days suggest he should. Manager Jim Leyland reiterated that he has been told by the team's training staff that Cabrera can continue to recuperate from his knee, thigh and abdominal injuries through treatment while still in the lineup.
"If it couldn't get better when he's playing, then we would have DL'ed him to get it right," Leyland said.
Avila making progress, waiting to be cleared
DETROIT -- Alex Avila is progressing through tests after suffering a concussion last week.
After being placed on the seven-day concussion list on Aug. 12, retroactive to Aug. 11, he's been undergoing a battery of tests set by MLB protocol to make sure he is symptom-free.
"Yesterday I got my heart rate to 60 percent. Today it'll be 85 percent," Avila said. "As long as I continue to have no symptoms or problems, I'll keep progressing until doctors clear me to play."
Manager Jim Leyland said Avila definitely will be wearing a different mask, one with more padding and heavier bars. Avila tried a hockey mask in the past, but found it uncomfortable. While the Tigers are hoping the new mask will help Avila, that doesn't mean they're not worried about another concussion in the future.
"I'm concerned about it, because I've been suspicious for a couple of years with Alex," Leyland said. "I really talked about it a little bit with the coaches. I'm worried about him getting hit so many times. I really don't know how it happens. He gets hit more than any catcher that I've ever seen, without question, by far."
Detroit's first squeeze of season goes off without hitch
DETROIT -- Manager Jim Leyland doesn't call for a lot of suicide-squeeze plays, but it went according to script in the second inning of Saturday's game.
With the Tigers up 2-0 and Omar Infante on third base, Jose Iglesias bunted the ball in play to score Infante and then beat the throw to first for a single. It was the first squeeze play for Detroit this season.
"It was early in the game, but for one thing you don't expect them to be looking for it that early in the game," Leyland said. "We just took a shot with Iglesias that he could get it down, and to be honest with you, he bunted a tough pitch. It was a breaking ball, and he did a [heck] of a job getting that ball into fair territory."
The bunt not only surprised the Royals, but also some players on the Tigers.
"In fact, to be honest with you, we had it on the pitch before but [third-base coach Tom Brookens] took it off the way [Iglesias] reacted, like it stunned him, too," Leyland said. "And then I put it on again the next pitch."
Lower back spasms puts Infante on sidelines
DETROIT -- The Tigers were without Omar Infante for a month due to his sprained left ankle until he returned from the 15-day disabled list on Monday. Now he's out of the lineup again on Sunday with lower back spasms and a tight left quadriceps.
Infante said his leg and lower back both tightened up while running home during a successful suicide-squeeze play in the second inning Saturday. He exited the game in the seventh.
"Just coming from my ankle problems, I think it's coming from that," Infante said. "I don't know. It's the first time it's happened to me. I have the day off today, day off tomorrow and we'll see how I feel Tuesday."
Infante is 9-for-23 at the plate since returning from the DL. He was replaced by Ramon Santiago at second base for Sunday's series finale against the Royals.
"I feel better today, more loose," Infante said. "They gave me a pill, a muscle relaxer, and I feel better."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. Bobby Nightengale is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.