As the final seconds of the non-waiver trade deadline ticked down, the Kansas City Royals found themselves five games behind the first-place Detroit Tigers in the American League Central. They had closed the gap (from a season-high eight games back) over the previous 10 days, but all of a sudden, the hill Kansas City was trying to climb began to look more like a mountain. A 6-foot-6 mountain named David Price.
The big left-hander was traded to the Tigers in a deadline deal that gave Detroit three former Cy Young Award winners in its rotation. Meanwhile, the Royals -- who had inquired about trading for Price earlier in July -- stood pat. It looked like the big-budget Tigers were flexing their financial muscle in an attempt to leave Kansas City in the rearview mirror.
Hang on a minute. That's not quite how it has worked out so far. Since the Price trade, the Royals have shaved 3.5 games off Detroit's lead, and after Saturday's games, Kansas City is only 1½ games out of first place. We now have a race in the AL Central that rivals the barn burner in the National League's Central division.
This is shaping up to be an exceptionally bad weekend for the Tigers. First of all, right-hander Anibal Sanchez was forced to leave Friday’s game in the fifth inning after suffering what is being described as a right pectoral strain on a pickoff attempt. Sanchez has never won a Cy Young, and he hasn't pitched as well as he did last year when he was the AL ERA leader, but he's still a 2.8 WAR player with a 3.53 ERA (and a 2.71 FIP). Any extended absence would test Detroit's rotation.
Then, on Saturday, the Tigers blew a ninth-inning lead when Toronto's Jose Reyes singled off Detroit closer Joe Nathan to begin the inning, stole second, advanced to third on a fly ball, and scored on Dioner Navarro's RBI single. The Jays ultimately won it on Nolan Reimold's walk-off double in the 10th inning.
It was Nathan's sixth blown save of the season, and one wonders how long Tigers manager Brad Ausmus can stick with him at the back of the bullpen. Nathan's ERA (5.36) is the worst mark he has posted since he was a skinny 25-year-old in San Francisco; his strikeout percentage is down, and his walk percentage is up. If the 39-year-old hasn't finally reached the end of his road, he's creeping ever closer.
Meanwhile, the Royals are just taking care of business. After Saturday's 5-0 whitewashing of the Giants, Kansas City has won six straight series, and has won eight of nine games since the Price trade. Against the Giants, it was one of Price's old Tampa Bay teammates who provided the highlights for the Royals.
James Shields tossed a four-hit shutout, striking out five and walking just one to improve his record to 11-6 with a 3.25 ERA; only two Giants were even able to reach second base. It was Shields' ninth career shutout, but his first as a Royal, and it could not have come at a better time. This year, Shields has been much the same pitcher as he has been for the past four years, though his walk rate has dropped substantially (his 1.89 BB/9 is his best since 2008). Shields isn't your typical ace (he's kind of been chronically overrated since a very good 2011 season), and he certainly isn't Price, but he's an effective starter.
On the offensive side, Alex Gordon had two hits, including a solo homer in the fifth that opened the scoring (and would prove to be the winning margin, as it turned out). The Royals broke open the game with a four-run seventh inning, but Shields' heroics carried the day.
Saturday morning, an alarm went off at the Toronto hotel where the Tigers are staying. Foreshadowing, perhaps? The Royals have won 14 of their past 17 games, they play Detroit six more times in September, and stand in a good position to derail all of the Tigers' big plans.
Ain't baseball grand?
Chad Dotson writes for Redleg Nation on the SweetSpot Network.