Five weeks ago, James Shields was the worst starter in the Royals rotation in terms of ERA. The Royals were treading water and struggling to stay above .500 with their laboring ace. The majority of fans wanted him traded, some because of his struggles. People claimed he was “washed up”, “old”, or “hurt.”
Oh what a difference a few weeks (and a few wins) can make.
Continuing his recent dominating trend, Shields fired his first shutout as a Royal, stifling the Giants while leading his team to their sixth consecutive win. Living true to his “Big Game” nickname, the man referred to as “Juego G” in the team clubhouse picked a good time for his best start as a Royal.
Shields (11-6), who dueled with San Francisco starter Tim Hudson for most of the evening, has seen his return to dominance fueled by exquisite command of his changeup. The pitch was once again lethal on Saturday evening, providing the punchout on all five of his strikeouts. In all, Shields surrendered just four hits in the complete game effort. He walked one batter. He pitched with excellent efficiently, needing just 109 pitches (72 for strikes) to work nine innings.
“Here we come,” the Royals’ ace spoke into the microphone to the crowd of over 35,000 following the game. “This is it – this is playoff baseball.” A huge roar erupted over Kauffman before Shields could even finish his sentence.
After posting an ugly 5.66 ERA in eight starts from May 24-July 1, Shields has responded by posting a stellar 1.61 mark in his last seven games. Those seven starts – 40.2 innings, 38 hits, nine earned runs, 40 strikeouts, eight walks. That’s the James Shields the fans have come to expect. His season ERA has dropped from 3.93 to 3.25 in the stretch.
Now winners of 14 of their last 17 games, the Royals are 9-1 in their last 10, and pulled to a mere 1.5 games behind first-place Detroit. Pending the result of the Seattle/Chicago game, the win pushed them to a full game cushion in the race for the second Wild Card spot.
That may not sound like a lot, but for a franchise that hasn’t been to the postseason in 28 years, it’s more than enough to get everyone excited. Shields’ brilliant trend has erased little question over who the Royals would put on the mound in the event of a one-game playoff.
On “Nebraska Night” at Kauffman Stadium, former Cornhusker Alex Gordon lit up the building when he led off the fifth inning with a towering home run to right. The blast broke a scoreless tie and was the first hard-hit ball the team was able to manufacture against Hudson. After going 34 consecutive games without a homer, Gordon has not hit two dingers in his last three games.
The 39-year-old Hudson (8-9), making his first start at Kauffman Stadium since 2004, was sharp himself early on. He retired 11 of the first 12 Royals before Gordon’s homer, and then settled back down to make it through six innings while allowing only three hits. In the seventh, though, it all came unraveled for the veteran. Billy Butler led off the inning with another extra-base hit, just missing a homer by inches with a double off the left-center wall. Gordon followed with a single, but when Butler was held at third, Lorenzo Cain picked him up by grounding a single through the right side hole. The hit that plated Kansas City’s second run knocked Hudson from the game. His final line: 6+ innings, six hits, three runs, and one strikeout.
Kansas City didn’t stop there, though. After a double play, they feasted on former Royal reliever Jeremy Affeldt. Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Jarrod Dyson came through with three consecutive run-producing hits, stretching the lead out to 5-0. With Shields on the hill, that was four more runs than necessary, but the insurance runs ensured a bid at a complete game shutout.
The Royals are now 13-4 this season in interleague games, after going just 9-11 in those games a season ago. Their playoff chances have increased from 8% on July 21 to 51% today, according to ESPN.com.
One more stat I can’t put anywhere else: the Royals, despite still being last in the majors with 69 home runs this year, have actually out-homered their opponents in their last 54 games, 43-41. They were out-homered 58-28 in their first 61 games of the year.
Oh, and in case this whole thing wasn’t exciting enough, Alex Gordon sang into Joel Goldberg’s microphone after the game. I’m sure the video is on the MLB website, but in case you didn’t see it, I’ll leave it at this – American Idol is not in Alex Gordon’s future. He should definitely stick to being an All-Star outfielder for the Kansas City Royals.
Up next: after clinching their sixth straight series win on Saturday night, the Royals will go for the sweep on Sunday behind Danny Duffy (6-10, 2.39 ERA). He will be opposed by Tim Lincecum (9-7, 4.22), in what is the best matchup for the Royals on paper in the series.
The Hunt for Blue October is officially on. The Royals have the attention of the entire league – especially the Detroit Tigers. With the league’s easiest schedule ahead of them, everything is eerily lining up for the best October Kansas City has had in the last three decades, and it’s not because of the Chiefs.