DETROIT — Prince Fielder went three weeks without a homer, and the Detroit Tigers kept right on rolling.
Now that drought’s over — and Fielder’s team is sitting pretty in the AL Central.
Fielder’s two-run shot in the first inning Thursday night sent the Tigers to a 4-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals. Andy Dirks added four hits for Detroit, which leads second-place Cleveland by 6½ games in the division.
“Prince produces runs. I don’t care how he does it,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “Tonight happened to be by way of the home run, but he’s a run producer, always has been. It’s in the book and it’ll be in the book at the end of this year.”
Dirks had two doubles and two singles for the Tigers, who took the opener of this five-game series with third-place Kansas City. The Royals have lost three in a row after a 17-3 stretch that put them in contention for a postseason spot.
Kansas City now trails Detroit by 8½ games in the division. The Royals are 5½ behind Oakland in the race for a wild card.
Detroit’s Anibal Sanchez (11-7) allowed a run and seven hits in 7 1-3 innings. Bruce Rondon finished the eighth, and Joaquin Benoit pitched a hitless ninth for his 16th save in 16 chances.
Jeremy Guthrie (12-9) allowed four runs and 13 hits in seven innings.
Fielder went deep for the first time since July 24, belting a towering drive to right-center to give Detroit a 2-1 lead. The Tigers scored two more runs in the fifth on RBI singles by Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera.
Dirks, batting leadoff because Austin Jackson had the night off, scored twice. It was the second four-hit game of the season for Dirks, who is from Kansas and went to Wichita State.
“It felt good. It’s hard to explain — it’s just one of those ‘feel’ things,” Dirks said. “I could feel the path of the bat as I was swinging. My timing was better and everything just clicks. Your legs work with your hands and different things.”
The Tigers won despite an atrocious night on the bases. Dirks led off the Detroit third with a double, and then was caught in a rundown when Hunter grounded to the mound. After Dirks was tagged out, the Royals got a double play because Hunter had turned too far around first.
In the sixth, Brayan Pena took too much of a turn after hitting a single, and he too was caught off the bag.
Kansas City, meanwhile, stole three bases, but the Royals couldn’t break through against Sanchez after scoring a run in the first inning.
“We had a good scouting report today,” Kansas City’s Alex Gordon said. “When you’re not hitting doubles and home runs, you’ve got to make something happen.”
Gordon’s RBI single made it 1-0, but Dirks singled to start the bottom of the first, and Fielder went deep for his 18th homer of the season.
The Royals had a man on second in the second, a man on third in the fourth and then a man on second again in the fifth. But they were 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position.
After a double by Dirks in the fifth, Detroit had men on second and third with one out. Hunter singled to make it 3-1, and Cabrera’s fly ball to center dropped in front of Jarrod Dyson for another run.
Cabrera, who has been bothered by hip and leg injuries lately, made a nice sliding catch in foul territory near third base on an eighth-inning popup by Gordon.
“He’s obviously playing in some pain,” Leyland said. “Just a gutty performance, day after day. You know, we’ve got a lot of guys that go out there all the time — and I don’t want to slight Miggy, because he’s been going out there and playing. There’s not too many guys that could do what he’s doing, under the circumstances, but we’ve got a lot of guys that go out there.”