This is why the Kansas City Royals made that December trade in 2012 with the Tampa Bay Rays. This is why they were willing to part with uber-prospect Will Myers, along with up-and-coming right-hander Jake Odorizzi. This is the kind of game James Shields was brought to Kansas City to pitch in.
Tonight. Versus Detroit at Comerica Park with first place in the American League Central on the line.
The Royals are walking a tightrope. They’ve lost the first two games in this series to fall into a tie with the Tigers for first. Kansas City is 79-64; the Tigers are 80-65. Remember, too, that Kansas City is on the line for a loss in a game that will be finished in Cleveland on Sept. 22 with the Indians leading, 4-2, in the bottom of the ninth inning.
The Royals have little wiggle room. Their fans are at once thrilled with the prospect of postseason play and doubtful their team can pull it off.
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Tonight, Kansas City’s ace takes the mound at Comerica, where he is 4-0 with a 1.71 ERA in his past six starts. He faces Detroit right-hander Rick Porcello, who has been outstanding for the Tigers and is 3-0 with a 1.89 ERA in his past three starts against the Royals.
Something has to give.
Momentum is with Detroit, which for two nights has looked like the team many picked to run away with the American League Central. The Tigers swatted Royals starters Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas around. But now they get Shields in the kind of important game the Royals envisioned when they made the trade with the Rays.
Shields, 32, is a beast, having topped 200 innings eight seasons in a row. He’s at 200 1/3 for the Royals this season and Fangraphs.com projections have him topping 200 innings for the next four years.
It’s too early to say the Royals’ playoff hopes depend on the outcome of tonight’s game. Kansas City will have 17 games to play, plus the completion of the suspended contest against the Indians, after tonight. That includes three with the Tigers at Kauffman Stadium on Sept. 19-21.
But Detroit is brimming with confidence after winning the first two games of this series. The Tigers will be pulling out all the stops to go for the sweep.
Shields, a free agent after this season, is coming off one of his best games of the season, having pitched 8.1 innings of shutout baseball against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium last weekend. He is 9-2 with a 3.07 ERA on the road and 4-2 with a 2.45 ERA since the All-Star break. All signs point to Shields being at his best tonight.
How much, though, will the Royals’ offense support him. As always, that’s a concern. Kansas City has struggled to score runs all season.
But when the Royals score three or more runs for Shields, he’s 11-0. Three piddly runs.
Despite all of the innings over all of the years, Shields shows no signs of wearing down. It’s remarkable, really.
His fastball this season has been clocked at an average of 92.4 mph, above his career average of 91.2. While April and March have been his best months (21-8, 2.93) he’s also been strong in August, September and October regular-season games, with a 45-26 record and ERA around 3.40.
It’s almost as if Shields was meant for this moment, this game. There may be bigger games to come this season for the Royals, but so far this is as big as it gets. And they happen to have a guy nicknamed “Big Game” on the mound.
This is September baseball at its best and most excruciating.