KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Justin Verlander watched helplessly as his first pitch went sailing toward the outfield wall. The Tigers' ace could see Austin Jackson tracking it from the moment it left Alex Gordon's bat, but Verlander wasn't sure the speedy center fielder could get to it.
Jackson leaped -- and came back down with a 409-foot out.
Bailed out by his defense in the first inning, Verlander returned the favor in the seventh. He pitched out of trouble brought on by an error to preserve a one-run lead over the Kansas City Royals, and Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde finished off the 4-3 victory Saturday night.
Verlander (16-5) won his fifth straight start and moved into a tie with New York Yankees lefty CC Sabathia for the major league lead in victories. The right-hander also improved to 13-2 in his career against Kansas City.
"At first I didn't know if I was going to make it back there to get it," Jackson said of his leaping grab. "It kept going and I was getting to the track and trying to time my steps right. I was able to get back to it."
It was the Royals' best scoring opportunity until Jeff Francoeur's solo homer in the fifth.
"Talk about a catch," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "That could be the best catch I've seen all year. I didn't think he would get over there and then to time his leap at the last second to catch it above the wall."
Victor Martinez drove in two runs for Detroit before leaving late with a left knee sprain. He will be evaluated again Sunday, but manager Jim Leyland doesn't think it's serious.
The Tigers built a 4-1 lead by the seventh when their defense gave Kansas City hope.
Ryan Raburn had just moved from third base to right field to start the inning. Eric Hosmer singled with one out and Francoeur doubled down the right-field line. Raburn's throw overshot second base by a wide margin, allowing Hosmer to score, and weak-hitting Brayan Pena's two-out double moments later drew Kansas City within 4-3.
The unflappable Verlander bounced back to get Alcides Escobar on a weak foul popup down the third-base line, preserving the Tigers' one-run lead. Escobar promptly spiked his bat in frustration.
"I didn't have great control of my curveball. I was kind of able to get a little feel in the fourth, fifth, sixth inning," Verlander said. "A couple hits in the seventh, one big hit by Pena, and next thing I know the tying run is on second base. Luckily I was able to get through it with the lead."
Verlander wound up allowing five hits in seven innings while striking out eight. Valverde handled the ninth for his 32nd straight save to start the season, matching the club record set by AL MVP Willie Hernandez in 1984.
Danny Duffy (3-4) allowed three runs and five hits for Kansas City, but he was done in again by his pitch count. The rookie left-hander needed a career-high 105 to get through five innings, 30 more pitches than Verlander needed to get through the same point in the game.
"I didn't have very good command," Duffy said. "I didn't do my job. I didn't locate very well. I was really frustrated. I'm really frustrated with myself right now. I didn't keep my team in the game.
"They battled back," he said, "but by no means did I give us a chance to win."
Detroit got its first two runs in the first inning, when Duffy issued back-to-back one-out walks and Cabrera followed with a double to right. The shaky start brought pitching coach Bob McClure to the mound, but it sure didn't do much good. Martinez lined the very next pitch up the middle for an RBI single.
The Tigers made it 3-0 in the third when Cabrera doubled and Martinez singled, then answered Francoeur's homer in the seventh. Alex Avila singled off Blake Wood, and Jackson reached first base when Wood threw the ball away on a soft grounder to the mound. Brennan Boesch moved the runners up and Ordonez hit an RBI groundout.
"It's very important to get the runs for starting pitchers like Verlander," Cabrera said. "When they get run support they feel a lot of confidence. And we got another one in the seventh. That really helped the bullpen."
Max Scherzer (11-6) starts the series finale for Detroit. Bruce Chen (5-5) goes for Kansas City. ... Leyland plans to skip Brad Penny's turn in the rotation, allowing Verlander to pitch on regular rest in the finale of a three-game series at second-place Cleveland. The Tigers are off Monday. ... Bubba Starling was a no-show for Nebraska's first football practice Saturday. The Royals picked the outfielder fifth overall in June, but he's yet to sign while considering college football. Baseball's signing deadline is Aug. 15.