By LARRY FLEISHER
On Tuesday, the Kansas City Royals and Oakland Athletics will meet for the right to be the wild card team. It's a match-up of teams with different things at stake. Within the last two years both went all-in to acquire a big game pitcher.
For the Royals it's further validation of the rebuilding that has produced the core of Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Greg Holland and Salvador Perez and resulted in the team's first postseason appearance since winning the 1985 World Series. It's also a chance to further justify acquiring James Shields from Tampa Bay following the 2012 season for prospect Wil Myers, who became the AL rookie of the year.
For the Athletics it's a chance to see if their go for broke moves of acquiring Jon Lesterand Jeff Samardzija will actually pay off. Oakland's playoff reputation is not sterling with first-round losses in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2012 and last season.
When the teams take the field, it will be a contest of teams that took differing paths to reach this point. Kansas City has had three winning seasons since 1994 (2003, 2013 and this year) and this year used a summer surge to get in playoff contention. Through July 21, the Royals were a disappointing 48-50 in the midst of a 3-10 stretch.
At that time, the Royals had a respectable 3.77 ERA but the rest of the way the Royals produced a 3.10 ERA. James Shields, who makes the start Tuesday, finished the year 5-3 with a 2.48 ERA over his last 13 starts. Shields has earned the nickname "Big Game James" and in the final month he was 2-1 with a 2.31 ERA.
"When I came over here, I knew exactly what was going on," said Shields to reporters in Kansas City. "I knew that this city's been wanting a championship team for a long time, and a playoff team. Hopefully we did the city proud. We've got a long way to go still, but we're going to keep grinding."
Shields will pitching in his seventh postseason game. He was 2-4 with a 4.98 ERA in six playoff starts for the Rays
whose six postseason starts (2-4, 4.98 ERA) came with the Rays.
The Royals posses a mixed bag offensively.
The Royals were first in the AL with a .263 average, first in the league with 153 steals but 15th with 95 home runs. Alex Gordon's 19 home runs and 74 RBI led the team, the kind of numbers you might expect to see in the late-1960s but he batted .266, had a .351 on-base percentage and scored 87 times.
Kansas City is strong defensively as Alcides Escobar has great range with a .976 field percentage. In the outfield Gordon has improved immensely as a left fielder over recent years while Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson use their speed to not only steal a combined 64 bases but can track down fly balls with the best of them.
Through the first half, it didn't seem that Oakland was going to be playing in this game. The Athletics were 51-30 and 5 1/2 games up but they went 37-58 the rest of the way and finished 10 games out.
Along the way, Beane obtained Lester. Lester has vast experience in these types of games and his numbers seem to indicate he has been in playoff mode ever since being acquired.
Lester had a 2.35 ERA in 11 starts for Oakland and a 1.80 ERA in his final 19 starts. His overall ERA of 2.46 was the second-lowest by someone who changed teams in midseason behind John Tudor's 2.32 with the Cardinals and Athletics in 1988.
Lester is 6-4 with a 2.11 ERA in 13 postseason appearances and that includes a 1.97 ERA in his 11 starting assignments. Last October, he was 4-1 with a 1.56 ERA in five starts as the Red Sox won their third he World Series title in the last decade.
Against the Royals, Lester is 9-3 with a 1.84 ERA in 13 career starts. The first 11 were with the Red Sox and the last two accounted for Oakland's lone wins in the season series. Very few on Kansas City has hit Lester especially well as Hosmer, Billy Butler and Gordon are a combined 12-for-66 (.182) with 24 strikeouts.
The A's had a .244 average this season, the by-product of a faltering offense. In the first half, they batted .254 and had 89 home runs but after averaging 5.1 runs in the first half, they dipped to 3.8 in their final 81 games while hitting 57 home runs.
This was Josh Donaldson's most productive season in terms of home runs and RBI as he finished with 29 home runs and 98 RBI. Over the final 81 games, he had 11 homers and 37 RBI.
In the end, the Royals will either win their first postseason game in nearly 29 years, ending a generation's worth of disappointment that 12 managers have worked through or the Athletics will continue their reputation as a team that can't win big postseason games and Lester will head to free agency and possibly out of Oakland.
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