Kansas City is still chasing the Tigers and they’re not going away

Norichika Aoki is congratulated by his teammates, indluding former Tiger Omar Infante aftr a walkoff win earlier this season.

Norichika Aoki is congratulated by his teammates, including former Tiger Omar Infante, after a walkoff win earlier this season.

The pesky Kansas City Royals have failed to get the message. The AL Central belongs to the Detroit Tigers, don’t they know that?

They don’t.

On April 30 the Tigers held a one-and-half game lead as they arrived in Kansas City to face the Royals in a three-game series. The Tigers proceeded to pummel the Royals and sweep the series, outscoring the overmatched youngsters 26-8 to increase their division lead to 4 1/2 games.

Six weeks later the Tigers hosted the Royals with a one-and-half-game lead once again. The Royals turned the tables, beating Verlander, Scherzer, and Smyly, scoring 24 runs and snatching the lead in the division as they left town with a sweep. But the Tigers seemed a little peeved by that development and went on a seven-game winning streak and a 12-2 stretch to reclaim first place and push their lead back to five games on July 3rd.

Fast forward a week and Detroit returned to the KC for a four-game set with a 4 1/2 game margin. They pounded the Royals 16-4 in game one, came back to win 2-1 the next night behind Anibal Sanchez, and made it three straight when Rick Porcello beat them 5-1 the next evening. Even though the Royals salvaged the last game of that four-game series, Detroit left with a 6 1/2 game lead, which seemed pretty safe. Cleveland even hopped past the Royals to take second place for a while.

But the Royals, behind manager Ned Yost, about as even-keeled a guy as you can imagine, have stayed calm and carried on. Since falling below .500 just after the All-Star break, the Royals have gone 13-3 to inch back onto the heels of our Tigers. Their troubled offense has come to life and their suspect starting pitching has steadied. Entering Sunday’s games the Royals are one-and-a-half games back once again.

Since pushing their lead to seven games two weeks ago, Detroit is 6-9, not a dismal record, but bad enough that it’s allowed the red-hot (and hungry) Royals to get back into the division race. These are not your father’s Royals — the Royals who stuttered and stumbled and missed the playoffs for three decades. These Royals are talented and confident. The more weeks fly off the calendar with them still within sniffing distance, the more dangerous they become. The Tigers are entering a stretch hwere 18 of their next 26 games will be on the road. They’ll face the Pirates, Mariners, and Yankees, three teams battling for playoff spots themselves. They’ll have to square off against division foes: the Twins, White Sox, and Indians. That’s never easy, no matter where those teams fall in the standings. On September 8th, the Royals will travel to Detroit for a three-gamer which might be crucial for these two teams.

The Tigers are facing adversity with injuries to Torii Hunter (hand), Sanchez (who left Friday’s start with a muscle strain), and Miguel Cabrera and the offense sputtering. They’ve been Jekyll and Hyde all season, winning 5 of 7, then losing 4 of 5, then winning 7 in a row and then diving again. They can’t seem to play really good baseball for a full month. As a result, the Royals have been able to lurk. Let’s face it, the Royals are vastly outmanned in this race. The Tigers have Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, and now David Price. Can you name three players on the Royals after Billy Butler? This should be a runaway for the Tigs, but that’s why baseball is such a hard game to handicap. Over the course of a 162-game season so many things can (and will) go wrong. Good teams play poorly for stretches. Players get hurt. Some players step up that no one would have expected (J.D. Martinez for the Tigers, Lorenzo Cain and Danny Duffy for KC), and some guys tank when you least expect it (Joe Nathan anyone?).

The Tigers are in what legendary broadcaster Red Barber called “the catbird seat,” meaning they are in an enviable spot to make their fourth straight postseason. They have the superstars. They have the pedigree and the experience. The Royals are unknown and untested, trying to make the playoffs for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president, the Soviet Union still existed, and MacGyver was a hit TV show.

MacGyver used to get himself into sticky situations only to escape by patching together an unlikely solution, often with the help of duct tape. Where will the Tigers get their duct tape to stave off the rascally Royals?