The biggest obstacle in the Royals' effort to beat out the Tigers in the American League Central standings is their inability to beat the Tigers on the field. It's rare that anything, even in baseball, is so perfectly appropriate, but that is precisely the case here.
Kansas City's 4-2 loss in Detroit on Tuesday night was its 11th defeat in 15 games against the Tigers this season, and it allowed Detroit to move back into a tie with the Royals atop the division with three weeks to go. Looking over the remaining schedules of the two teams, it seems very likely that the results of the final four head-to-head matchups between the two division leaders — the series finale in Detroit on Wednesday night and three games in Kansas City next weekend — will be the deciding factor in the race's outcome.
After Wednesday night's contest, both teams have three games remaining against Cleveland — which is still clinging to relevance with a 74-69 record — the only non-head-to-head matchups for either against a club with a winning record. All of their remaining games are against teams more than 15 games below .500: The Red Sox and White Sox for Kansas City, the Twins and White Sox for Detroit. Success against those hopeless teams is not guaranteed. The Tigers are merely .500 on the season against both Chicago and Minnesota, while the Royals have lost all three of their prior meetings this season with Boston, whom they host in a four-game set starting Thursday.
It's still possible, though, to see the schedule favoring Kansas City. The Royals have gone 8-4 against the White Sox, whom they play seven more times, and have outplayed the Tigers in the second half overall, going 31-19 (.620) since the All-Star break, compared to Detroit's 27-27. However, if the Royals can't beat the Tigers head-to-head, they'll spend the remaining part of their schedule playing catchup rather than building a lead in the Central.
It's also worth noting that while Detroit has 16 games remaining, Kansas City has 17 and also has to complete its suspended game against the Indians from Aug. 31 in a quasi-doubleheader on Sept. 22. That technically gives the Royals 24 games in the final 24 days of the season with just one off day, that coming a week from Thursday. Of course, the resolution of that game against Cleveland, which was called due to rain with the Indians leading 4-2 in the top of the 10th, could come very quickly. If that result holds, the Royals will be saddled with another loss, one that lingers over their current record, giving the Tigers a phantom half-game lead in the division entering Wednesday night's action.
In their first 15 head-to-head games, meanwhile, Detroit has been winning soundly, averaging 5.7 runs per game to Kansas City's 3.7. In eight of those 15 games, the Royals have scored two or fewer runs. Of K.C.'s four wins, three came at the end of its season-long 10-game winning streak in mid-June. In the other four series, the Royals are just 1-10.
The biggest, and perhaps most unlikely, thorn in Kansas City's side during those games has been J.D. Martinez. The 27-year-old -- who entered the season with a .251/.300/.387 line in 975 plate appearances but has emerged to hit .305/.348/.545 with 20 home runs and 65 RBIs in 414 PA this year -- has posted a .463/.467/.927 line with five home runs, 14 RBIs and 10 runs scored against the Royals, by far his best performance against any team. Included in those numbers are the home run and two RBIs he collected on Tuesday night, which amounted to the difference in the Tigers' division-tying 4-2 win.
On Wednesday night, the Royals will try to take the lead back by beating Detroit starter Rick Porcello, whom they are 0-2 against this year. Porcello has pitched a total of 14 innings and allowed just three runs against Kansas City this season. He has stumbled a bit since lately, allowing six runs in three of his last five starts, but with the Royals' offense scuffling again — they have scored just 27 runs in their last 11 games — Detroit is poised for a sweep.
That makes Wednesday night's game arguably the most important of impending free agent James Shields' Kansas City career to this point. Shields has made three starts against the Tigers this season, getting a no-decision in a quality start on Opening Day, getting torched for eight runs on May 2 and taking a hard-luck loss on July 12 (7 IP, 2 R, 0 BB, 8 K). Since that last confrontation, however, Shields has gone 4-2 with a 2.45 ERA with eight quality starts in 10 turns, including his only shutout of the season (against the Giants on Aug. 9). He has allowed just one run in 15 1/3 innings over his last two starts, which came against fringe wild-card contenders in the Indians and Yankees.
When the Royals traded top prospect Wil Myers to the Rays for Shields in December 2012, it was a move designed to help Kansas City reach the playoffs for the first time since 1985. The team is on the cusp of realizing that ambition now, but it needs Shields to excel tonight and against Detroit again next weekend to make it a reality.