by Drew Sarver
It has been 29 years since the Kansas City Royals reached the postseason. 1985 saw the Royals win their one and only World Series Championship. (With a little help from umpire Don Denkinger.) Tuesday night, the Royals will host the Oakland A’s in a one game showdown between the two AL Wild Card winners. To the victor go the spoils and a divisional round match up with the Los Angeles Angels. You know where the losers go.
The A’s have been to the playoffs 11 times during the Royals drought, but haven’t been to the World Series since 1990. Their last World Series title, the ninth in franchise history (The first five were won when they called Philadelphia home), came in the “Earthquake series” with the San Francisco Giants.
The Royals were an expansion team in 1969, two years after the A’s departed Kansas City after a 13-season run. The only prior postseason meeting between the two squads came after the strike-shortened 1981 regular season. The Billy Martin-managed A’s swept KC in three straight games before they were swept in three games by the New York Yankees in the ALCS. It was a disappointing end of the season for Kansas City, which lost the World Series to the Philadelphia Phillies one year earlier.
Tuesday night, the teams will have one chance to move on to the divisional series. That is the punishment in Major League Baseball for not winning your division.
The Royals are counting on their ace, James “Big Game” Shields, who earned that moniker while a member of the Tampa Bay Rays, to take them to the next step. The Rays’ usual money crunching resulted in a trade that sent Shields and reliever Wade Davis to KC for then prospects Wil Myers (now a regular in the Rays’ lineup), pitchers Jake Odorizzi (now a regular in the Rays’ rotation) and Mike Montgomery.
Shields, a free agent after the season, has been incredibly consistent in his two seasons in the state of Missouri. He followed up a 13-9, 3.15 campaign in 2013 with a 14-8, 3.21 mark this season. The 32-year old has topped 200 innings in eight straight seasons, and pitched just 1.2 innings less this year than he did in 2013. He’s made at least 33 starts in each of the last seven seasons, a testament to his durability.
A 16th round pick in the 2000 MLB amateur draft, Shields has had his ups and downs in six post-season appearances. He put his team in a 3-1 hole in the 3rd inning of Game 1 of the 2008 ALDS, but the Rays rallied for a 6-4 victory. Shields picked up the victory and settled down, before departing in the 7th inning. Though he lost both of his starts in the ALCS, which Tampa Bay won in seven games, Shields lost the opener to Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka, 2-0. He didn’t fare as well in a 4-2 loss in Game 6.
Down one game to none in the World Series, Shields tossed 5.2 shutout innings to help Tampa even the series with the Philadelphia Phillies at a game apiece. Shields didn’t get another chance to pitch, however, as the Phillies closed things out in five games.
Shields will need to be at his best for the one-game playoff, because his counterpart is one tough customer. Jon Lester has a pair of World Series rings, but his victory over cancer is arguably his biggest win. After treatment for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Lester returned to the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and threw 5-plus shutout innings in Game 4 of the Red Sox World Series sweep over the St. Louis Cardinals.
Like Shields, Lester has been a model of consistency in his career. He’s topped 200 innings in six of the last seven seasons and may be having his finest season to date. Lester put up career bests in innings pitched (219.2), ERA (2.46) and walks per nine innings (2.0). He averaged better than nine strikeouts per nine innings, allowed 0.7 home runs per nine innings, and was named to his third All-Star team. For someone that played for over eight years in a baseball hot bed such as Boston, it’s hard to believe how little Lester is talked about when the names of the best pitchers in baseball come up.
Jon Lester is ddefinitelyone of them and that will be reflected this coming offseason when the free agent to be hits the open market. Lester had a tough decision as the trade deadline approached this past Summer. Stay in Boston, destined for last place, or go somewhere with a chance to make the postseason and possibly return to New England over the Winter. Lester chose the latter and produced a 2.35 ERA in 11 starts, of which he won six. Through no fault of his own, Oakland plummeted out of first place (14-23 in their final 37 games) in the AL West and ended up 10 games behind the Angels.
Instead of preparing themselves to play the winner of the Wild Card play-in, and trotting out Lester, Jeff Samardzija, Scott Kazmir, and Sonny Gray, the A’s will lean heavily on their left-handed ace to give their starting rotation the chance to flex their pitching muscle. They have a good chance to move on with Lester, who enters the game with a 2.11 ERA in 13 playoff appearances, 11 of them starts.
Two big names for one very big game.
Who hits Shields:
Who doesn’t hit Shields:
Who hits Lester:
Who doesn’t hit Lester:
Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.