What to look for in the big Tigers/Royals series this weekend

James Shields and J.D. Martinez will play key roles in the weekend series between the Royals and Tigers.

James Shields and J.D. Martinez will play key roles in the weekend series between the Royals and Tigers.

In Kansas City they’re calling it the biggest series since 1985. There’s no doubt that’s true.

For the Detroit Tigers this three-game series which gets underway in Kansas City tonight is less historic but it’s no less crucial. The series in the next-to-the-last weekend of the season will play a large part in deciding who wins the American League Central, who gets a wild card, or who might miss the playoffs completely.

Since 1985 the state of Missouri has seen 12 playoff teams and four of them have advanced to the World Series. But none of those clubs were wearing Royal blue. They were all wearing Cardinal red. Missouri loves baseball but it’s baseball played in that other city in that other league by that other team. The Royals have been like a missing child for three decades and for much of that time no one bothered to put their photo on a milk carton. Kansas City baseball hasn’t mattered for a very long time.

But this weekend it does and the Detroit Tigers are smack dab in the middle of it. The Tigers, under rookie manager Brad Ausmus, are trying to do something only 12 teams have done in baseball history: make it to the postseason in four consecutive seasons. Their little quasi-dynasty has yet to produce a championship but it has seen the Tigs go to baseball’s “final four” three straight years. Anything less than that will be a major disappointment in 2014.

The Tigers hold a half-game lead over the Royals as they enter tonight’s game. The Royals really need a sweep, since even winning two of three would get them to only a half-game ahead. Two of three by Detroit would give the Tigers a 1 1/2 game margin entering the final week of the season. It’s important to remember that KC also has a “loss in hand” in the form of their suspended game against the Indians that will be completed early next week. The Royals trail that game by two runs with just the last three outs left to play. Assuming they lose that game, that’s another 1/2 game they lose in the standings to Detroit.

Here are nine things to look for in this series.

#1. How sharp will Detroit’s starting pitching be?
Everything will tip off with Justin Verlander on the mound for the Tigers on Friday night. We all know JV has struggled this season and he’s been inconsistent in September too. Which Verlander will show up? He’s handled the Royals very well in his career (18-7, 3.23 ERA in 34 starts), but the right-hander is essentially a two-pitch pitcher this year and one of them is a slower fastball.

On Saturday Max Scherzer will toe the rubber and Max has been excellent this season, but in two of his last three starts he’s lost early leads. Max is starting to look like he might be tiring under the workload of the last two seasons, when he’s pitched a lot of innings and also pitched deep into the postseason.

Amazingly, Rick Porcello is probably the most sure thing on the staff right now for Detroit. He’s pitched very well throughout the season and he’s got all of his pitches working. He’ll finish up on Sunday when Detroit has the best chance of scoring some runs as they face Jeremy Guthrie.

#2. Who will play the smartest?
The Royals have a light-hitting lineup and as a result they have to maximize scoring opportunities. They play the best defense in the American League and they also steal and run the bases as well as any other team in the league. They have to play smart to win, and they usually do. The Tigers are able to overcome mistakes in the field and on the bases because they have  potent offense. But last week in Detroit when the Royals dropped two of three, it was the Tigers who played good baseball while KC made several uncharacteristic errors. Whichever team plays cleaner ball this weekend will come out on top.

#3. Will Joe Nathan look old or rejuvenated?
As the season winds down, Joe Cool looks like Joe Ancient. The Detroit closer often seems like he’s going to pass out on the mound and his patented breaking balls are finding way too much dirt as they bounce to the plate. You can tell Nathan doesn’t fully trust his stuff and opposing teams smell blood in the water when they have a chance to score against him. If Nathan isn’t on his game, the Tigers will lose this series.

#4. Will Alex Avila know where he is?
A few nights ago for the umpteenth time, the Detroit catcher suffered a concussion and left the dugout to rest. KC loves to steal bases, and if Avila isn’t in the game, they will have no one to really stop them.

#5. How will the bottom of Detroit’s batting order respond to the challenge?
Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and J.D. Martinez are hitting very well this month, and the top of the order (Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter) will also get respect from the Royals’ pitching corps. When they have a chance, the Royals will pitch around Detroit’s big three, leaving it up to the bottom of the order to produce runs. Nick Castellanos hasn’t hit a home run since August 16, in fact he has only six extra-base hits in the last month. He and Alex Avila, Andrew Romine, and Rajai Davis will need to make things happen at some point if the Tigers are going to score enough to win this weekend.

#6. Can James Shields shut down the Tigers again?
The only player who stopped the Tigers from sweeping the Royals last week was Big Game James, who mastered the Detroit lineup with a dominant performance. Shields will pitch Saturday in a pivotal swing game in this series. Detroit will need to get good at-bats against him.

#7. Will Ausmus use his whole roster?
One of the strengths of Jim Leyland was his blindness to inexperience. If he felt he had a young player on his team who could help him win, he played him. It didn’t matter if he was as green as the grass in Comerica Park. Two seasons ago Avisail Garcia played many key games down the stretch for Detroit. Last season Drew Smyly was used in critical spots, and a long way back Justin Verlander was given the ball as a rookie under Smoky Jim. So far, Brad Ausmus seems to favor veteran players, at least in crunch spots. Andrew Romine has been getting most of the playing time at short over rookie Eugenio Suarez. (The one unfortunate exception was Ezequiel Carrera playing center field a few nights ago and misplaying a ball that directly led to a loss). Top prospect James McCann, a good right-handed hitter who played very well at Toledo this season, has seen little action at all since coming up when the rosters expanded earlier this month. There might be times this weekend when a pinch-hitter will be needed. Will Ausmus have the nerve to call McCann or Tyler Collins or Steven Moya to the plate in place of Don Kelly or Bryan Holaday?

#8. What odd move will Ned Yost pull?
Most KC fans will tell you that they win in spite of their manager, not because of anything he does. Ned Yost has a reputation for making some bizarre personnel moves and he’s not known for being a tactical manager. At some point this weekend will he make a mental mistake?

#9. J.D. is red hot, will that continue?
If the Tigers win the division this year, J.D. Martinez might become a cult hero. The first-year Tiger has come out nowhere to have a great season with the bat, providing big hit after big hit after big hit. He’s red hot in September, can he keep it up against the Royals stellar pitching staff?