DETROIT -- For this Tigers team with lofty expectations, .500 is a milepost, not a goal.
For rookie left-hander Drew Smyly, so is the outing that got Detroit back to the break-even mark for the first time in seven weeks.
"I'm learning a crazy amount every time out," he said after his career-high 10 strikeouts over six innings in a 4-2 win over the Royals Friday night at Comerica Park.
The Tigers, in turn, are learning quite a bit about him.
"At some point, this guy's got a chance to really be good," manager Jim Leyland said. "He's left-handed, he's got good control and he's got a feel for the hitters, a little better feel for how to pitch hitters. He's got a chance to be a good one."
Smyly isn't going to get there this year, Leyland emphasizes, not as a rookie in his second pro season. But considering where he was a week and a half ago, with his spot in the rotation seemingly getting shaky with his escalating ERA, Smyly has shown a lot of fight trying to get out of a midseason slump.
His win over the Rays was a good step for him. Friday's outing was bigger.
"It's a lot to take in from trying to get Major League hitters out and just little mechanical things, what pitches to throw in certain situations," Smyly said. "I've gotten myself in trouble a good amount of times, got out of it some. I've had my good games, had my bad games.
"Tonight, my curveball was better than it's been all year. When you have your pitches going, it makes it easy."
When your curveball used to act more like a slider, it makes a big difference. It's a different pitch than the Royals saw from him in mid-April, and it showed in each swing and miss they took at his breaking ball as it dove for the dirt.
"It's a sharp-breaker that was dipping down," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "It was hard to see in the first few innings, but he mixes his pitches well."
It took the Royals five innings to catch up to Smyly, who hadn't struck out more than seven in a game in his brief Major League career -- and his three seven-strikeout efforts all came in his first five starts. The lefty reached that mark 11 batters into the game, then breezed past it on his way to fanning nine of Kansas City's first 13 hitters.
Smyly struck out Alex Gordon in each of his first two at-bats, the second time starting a stretch of four consecutive strikeouts that also claimed Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler.
Eight of Smyly's 10 strikeouts came on the slurve, or curve, or whatever you want to call it.
"That's the best I've seen him," Leyland said of his 22-year-old lefty. "That's the best I've seen his breaking stuff."
Combine the fact that his control was as good as usual, and the result was historic. Not since 1918 had a Tiger rookie struck out 10 batters without allowing a walk in an outing. However, Eric Erickson had 16 innings to do it, fanning 12 Washington Senators.
Leyland doesn't expect more of that, obviously.
"I just want him to keep making progress and keep us in games," Leyland said. "If he can keep us in games on a consistent basis for six innings, I would absolutely be thrilled. That's all I need him to do this year."
That's precisely what he did Friday, to the point that Leyland stretched him for a sixth inning to give him a test after the Royals tied it in the fifth.
The only Royals that didn't strike out were the bottom two hitters in the order, and they powered Kansas City's game-tying rally. Brayan Pena doubled in Mike Moustakas, then scored on Jason Bourgeois' ground ball through the middle.
Smyly (4-3) retired Gordon on a ground ball to first to hold it there, then stranded runners at second and third with a seven-pitch battle against Moustakas, who grounded out on Smyly's career-high 106th and final pitch of the night to end the top of the sixth.
It was another breaking ball, but it wasn't his best.
"He made a bad pitch to Moustakas that he grounded to Prince [Fielder]," Leyland said. "He was lucky it didn't go in the seats. It was a hanger, maybe too bad of a hanger."
At that point, the Tigers were struggling to handle Royals starter Jonathan Sanchez, who kept his walk total down and induced seven groundouts over the first five innings. However, he paid in the sixth for falling behind on Fielder and Young.
Fielder lined a single through the middle of Kansas City's infield shift for a single. Once Sanchez fell behind on a 3-0 count to Young, he challenged him with back-to-back fastballs. Young took the first, then saw Sanchez (1-5) hang the second and drove it deep to left for his second home run in as many days.
With that, they were on their way toward to .500, even if they weren't celebrating it.
"It means we've been winning," Young said. "We look a lot better on paper at .500 in a pennant race than five games below .500 and three games out. We want to continue the trend and try to win this series before the All-Star break and set ourselves up to go play in Baltimore after the break."