If the Kansas City Royals are indeed a playoff contender in the American League, their five-game series against the Detroit Tigers beginning Thursday night provides an excellent opportunity to show they're the real deal.
Both the Royals and Tigers have been among the hottest teams in MLB since the All-Star break. Kansas City is 19-6 in the second half of this season, with a 9-4 record so far in August. But the Royals haven't been able to close in on first place in the AL Central because Detroit has played just as well, going 17-7 since the midsummer hiatus and 8-4 this month.
Yet these two teams are also limping a bit going into this series. Following a 12-game win streak, the Tigers lost two of three at U.S. Cellular Field to the Chicago White Sox and have lost four of their past six games. Meanwhile, the Royals lost two of three at home to the Miami Marlins, losing the sort of series a presumed playoff contender should win. Prior to that, however, Kansas City won each of its past seven series, including matchups against the Tigers, Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox.
What's at stake here? The Royals are currently 7.5 games behind the Tigers in the AL Central. Winning three or four games would certainly be impressive and keep the Royals in contention. (A five-game sweep would be phenomenal.) A wild-card playoff bid is also within reach. Kansas City is 4.5 games behind the Tampa Bay Rays for that second additional postseason spot, but have to leapfrog the Orioles and Cleveland Indians to get it.
The flip side, of course, is that Detroit could effectively put the AL Central away with a series win. Winning four games or sweeping all five would all but shut the door. That would give the Tigers an opportunity to use September to nurse their assorted injuries (notably Miguel Cabrera's hip and abdominal issues), set its postseason rotation, work on smoothing out its bullpen, hold an audition for top prospect Nick Castellanos and do whatever else it needs to gear up for a return to the World Series.
“These are huge games for us,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer told reporters, including the Kansas City Star's Vahe Gregorian, after Wednesday's game. “We’re not going to sugarcoat it."
At first glance, the Tigers would appear to have the pitching advantage in these five games. Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer will all pitch in this series. Detroit won't have to use the arguable weak link of its starting rotation, Rick Porcello.
However, the Tigers will have need a spot starter for the second game of Friday's doubleheader, expected to be Jose Alvarez. Alvarez went 1-2 with a 5.03 ERA in four starts earlier this season, subbing for the injured Sanchez. In 20 starts for Triple-A Toledo, the 24-year-old left-hander has an 8-6 record and 2.79 ERA with 113 strikeouts in 125.2 innings.
The Royals will counter with Jeremy Guthrie and James Shields in the first two games. Guthrie, amazingly, is 4-0 in five starts versus Detroit since joining the Royals last season.
Wade Davis and his 5.29 ERA would seem to be a problem for Kansas City, but he's allowed two runs or fewer in each of his past four starts. Danny Duffy will get the spot start in the second half of Friday's doubleheader. He's gone 3-2 with a 4.08 ERA in 15 minor league appearances (13 starts) this year and has a career 5.16 ERA versus Detroit.
Pitching Bruce Chen against Scherzer on Sunday would appear to be a mismatch. Scherzer looks like the AL Cy Young Award favorite with a 17-1 record, 2.85 ERA and a strikeout rate of 9.9 per nine innings. Yet Chen has pitched well this season, compiling a 1.62 ERA — albeit mostly in a relief role. Chen also has been effective against the Tigers during the past two seasons, going 3-4 with a 3.21 ERA in seven starts.
The first half of Friday's doubleheader looks to be the best game of the series with Verlander and Shields as the pitching matchup. Games like this are why the Royals dealt for Shields in the offseason. Getting a top-of-the-rotation starter was that important to their cause, even if the team will almost surely regret trading phenom outfielder Wil Myers for Shields in years to come.
Though Shields' 7-8 record might not look terribly impressive, his 3.33 ERA shows he's pitched effectively. Most importantly, he's taken on a No. 1 starter's workload, making 25 starts and leading the Royals' rotation with 167.2 innings.
In three starts against the Tigers this season, Shields has compiled a 3.22 ERA with 16 strikeouts in 22 innings. Say what you might about whether or not the Royals should have traded their top prospect to try and become a playoff contender. But with Shields, they lead the AL with 448 runs allowed. Without him, the Royals probably wouldn't stand a chance at competing with the Tigers or for a wild-card spot this year.
Kansas City still has six games against the Tigers in September, along with six games with the Indians. So if they lose this series in Detroit, it's certainly not the end of the Royals' season. Series against the White Sox, Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners provide plenty of opportunities to load up on some wins, so even playing .500 against their closest rivals will go a long way toward keeping the Royals in contention.
But a good showing in Detroit this weekend would make a statement. If the Royals are indeed the real deal, this is the time to show it. Their success since the All-Star break demands to be taken seriously. It's put them in position to make a run at the postseason, to play the first meaningful baseball in Kansas City in 10 years. I'm guessing Royals fans have heard enough about the future. They want something to happen now.