With the season winding down, the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals are ready to put it all on the line this weekend.
Justin Verlander takes the mound opposite Jason Vargas as these AL Central rivals open a vital three-game set at Kauffman Stadium.
The Tigers (84-68) enter Friday night's showdown one-half game ahead of the Royals (83-68) for first place.
''Nothing needs to be said. There's not a person in this clubhouse that doesn't understand the importance of this series,'' Detroit manager Brad Ausmus said. ''This is fun. There should be a lot of energy - a lot more energy in the stands on the Royals side.''
Royals fans haven't had much to cheer about, though, losing six of seven to the Tigers at Kauffman Stadium. Detroit is 11-5 in the season series.
''That's a big series, for the whole year,'' Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar said. ''The team is going really good right now. Detroit, everybody knows, is good. Coming in here, it's exciting, playing at home. It's going to be a great series.''
The Tigers are on the verge of losing three straight for the first time since Aug. 21-23 after falling 8-4 at Minnesota on Wednesday. Miguel Cabrera stayed hot with four more hits and an RBI but the Tigers couldn't overcome another shaky start from David Price.
"What we've got to do is keep playing the game the way we know how to play, control what we can control, go out there and prepare (ourselves) and have good at-bats and play good defense and make good pitches," Torii Hunter said. "(If) we do that, I think we'll be fine."
The Royals improved to 3-4 on a 10-game homestand after beating the Chicago White Sox 6-2 on Wednesday. Lorenzo Cain went 3 for 5 with a three-run homer and Nori Aoki collected three more hits.
Aoki went 11 for 13 against the White Sox, setting a team record for most hits in a three-game series.
"Right now, Nori's gotten hot, and we needed that, we needed some guys getting hot, creating some scoring opportunities," manager Ned Yost said. "We need to mix in a few more guys to get hot like him and we'll be in great shape."
Aoki also walked twice in the White Sox series and is 2 for 11 with five walks against Verlander (13-12, 4.81 ERA), who surrendered three runs, six hits and three walks over 5 2-3 innings in Sunday's 6-4 win over Cleveland, though he didn't get a decision. The right-hander didn't have his usual velocity and was dealing with a blister on his thumb, an injury he doesn't expect to hinder him Friday.
Opponents are hitting .311 against Verlander over his last six starts, during which he's posted a 6.00 ERA. He gave up four runs over seven innings to beat Kansas City 9-5 on Sept. 8, improving to 1-2 with a 6.98 ERA in three starts in the series since the beginning of June.
Verlander has baffled several Royals hitters over the years, including Mike Moustakas (8 for 47), Alcides Escobar (11 for 53) and Alex Gordon (16 for 75). However, Billy Butler is a career .415 hitter in their matchups and Salvador Perez is 14 for 33 with a homer and seven doubles.
Vargas (11-9, 3.41) was tagged for five runs over 5 1-3 innings in Sunday's 8-4 defeat to Boston, dropping to 1-4 with a 4.60 ERA since Aug. 24.
One of those losses came 4-2 at Detroit on Sept. 9 after yielding all four runs over 5 1-3 innings. The left-hander is 1-2 with a 6.75 ERA in his last three outings against the Tigers.
Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler are a combined 10 for 23 with two homers and three doubles against Vargas this year. Cabrera has doubled twice in nine at-bats.
Cabrera is batting a league-leading .469 with six homers, six doubles and 12 RBIs this month.