The Royals are rolling. On Saturday evening at Kauffman Stadium, James Shields spun a four-hit shutout against the Giants, pulling his team to within 1 1/2 games of the scuffling Tigers in the AL Central while helping them maintain their hold on the second AL Wild Card spot. Suddenly, the notion of a trip to the postseason isn’t out of the question for Kansas City.
“Big Game James” needed just 109 pitches to go the distance, striking out five and wrapping things up in a tidy two hours and 30 minutes. He yielded just a two-out single to Gregor Blanco in the second, a two-out bunt single to Angel Pagan in the third, a one-out single to Pablo Sandoval in the fourth (erased via double play) and a leadoff double to Joe Panik in the eighth. Panik was the only Giant to reach second; he did so in the fifth as well, drawing a one-out walk and advancing on a wild pitch.
Shields netted 21 first-pitch strikes to Giants hitters, generated 13 groundballs, and only needed more than 14 pitches in an inning during the fifth, when he threw 16. He used 11 or fewer pitches in five innings; after that fifth-inning scare, he went the rest of the way on just 45 pitches.
Giants starter Tim Hudson spent the first four innings matching zeroes with Shields, allowing only a two-out single in the first inning by Salvador Perez, but he served up a solo homer to Alex Gordon to lead off the fifth and gave up three straight hits to start the seventh before getting the hook. The Royals wound up plating four runs in that frame -- two of them charged to Hudson -- extending the lead to 5-0.
For Shields, this was the sixth time in his last seven starts that he's allowed no more than two runs, a stretch that dates back to July 7; during that time, he's lowered his ERA from 3.91 to 3.25. His complete game shutout was his first since September 9, 2012, when he two-hit the Rangers as a member of the Rays, and the ninth of his nine-year career. It was the Royals' first complete-game shutout since August 5, 2013, when Jeremy Guthrie four-hit the Twins. Guthrie threw KC's only other complete game this year just two days ago against the Diamondbacks.
The victory was the Royals' sixth in a row, ninth in 10 games, and 14th in 17 games dating back to July 22. At that point, they were 48-50, third in the AL Central, eight games behind the Tigers and 1 1/2 games behind the Indians. They were also sixth in the Wild Card race, and 4 1/2 games out of the second spot occupied by the Mariners. Thanks in large part to a staff yielding just 2.82 runs per game over this 17-game stretch, the Royals have posted the majors' best record, and are now the closest they've been to the Tigers since June 21. They moved into the second Wild Card spot on Thursday, when they had a half-game lead on the Mariners, Yankees and Blue Jays; at this writing, they have a one-game lead on Seattle (whose game is in progress) and a 1 1/2-game lead on the other two teams.
As the Royals have gone 14-3, the Tigers have gone just 8-10, including Saturday's extra-inning loss to the Blue Jays in Toronto, the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of bullpen nightmares. Up 2-1 heading into the bottom of the ninth, struggling closer Joe Nathan squandered an eight-inning, four-hit, 11-strikeout effort by Max Scherzer when Jose Reyes singled, stole second, took third on a flyout and scored on a Dioner Navarro single. It was his sixth blown save of the year, which is the highest total in the majors among closers. He wound up loading the bases before giving way to recently acquired ex-Royals closer Joakim Soria, who escaped the jam but suffered a strain on his left side while warming up in the 10th and had to depart. Joba Chamberlain came on instead and yielded an infield single to Danny Valencia and then a walkoff double by Nolan Reimold.
Can the Royals close the gap to make their first playoff appearance since 1985? Coming into Saturday, the Baseball Prospectus Odds Report gave them a 36.7 chance of making the playoffs, split evenly between the division and Wild Card routes, and Saturday's results should boost both numbers by a couple percentage points. One thing working in KC’s favor is their remaining schedule, which is incorporated into those odds. Via Twitter, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal tweeted out the following:
Toughest remaining strength of schedule for top contenders, based upon opponents’ winning percentages, per STATS LLC… — Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) August 9, 2014
At .485 coming into Saturday's action, the Royals are tied with the Angels, the other Wild Card holders, with the easiest schedule. The gap between their slate and that of the Mariners is the equivalent of a 2.5 win difference over the course of a 162-game season, while the gap between the Royals and those of the Blue Jays and Yankees is 3.6 or 3.7 wins. None of those calculations take into account another Royals advantage: after Saturday, they have more home games remaining (25) than the Yankees (24), Blue Jays (23), Angels (20) or Mariners (19).
The immediate road ahead isn’t quite so easy, as they still have one more game with the Giants (62-55) and then four with the A’s (71-44). After that, 18 of their next 19 games are against sub-.500 teams, with a makeup game hosting the Yankees as the only exception. All of which is to say that if the Royals are ever going to break a drought that’s approaching three decades, the stars are starting to align.