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Game 146 Preview: Royals at Tigers

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Sole possession of first place is on the line today as the Tigers and Royals finish up their three game series at Comerica Park.

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Rich Schultz

Kansas City Royals (79-64) at Detroit Tigers (80-65)

Time/Place: 7:08 p.m., Comerica Park

SB Nation blog: Royals Review

Media: Fox Sports Detroit, ESPN, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: RHP James Shields (13-7, 3.23 ERA) vs. RHP Rick Porcello (15-10, 3.30 ERA)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
Shields 30 200.1 7.01 1.80 0.94 1.20 3.69 3.65 3.1
Porcello 27 183.0 5.41 1.67 0.74 1.19 3.59 3.89 3.1

James Shields has had his share of rough outings this season, but then he spins an outing like last Friday's near-shutout and you remember "oh yeah, this guy's pretty good." Shields has been utterly dominant since the All-Star break save for the occasional hiccup, posting a 2.45 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in his last 10 starts. He has only struck out 46 batters in 69 2/3 innings during that stretch, leaving him with a 3.61 FIP and 3.87 xFIP in the second half.

While the drop in strikeout rate would be a concern for most pitchers, it seems that Shields is mixing his pitches to better avoid hard contact. He is throwing his cutter less often in the second half in favor of his curveball, and has been throwing all four of his pitches -- fastball, cutter, curveball, and his devastating changeup -- at least 16 percent of the time. This unpredictability has resulted in a line of .236/.280/.373 from opposing batters in the second half with a .265 BABIP. While that last figure (and his 81 percent strand rate) seem unsustainable, Shields has given up a lower percentage of line drives while increasing his fly ball rate. That spike in fly ball rate meshes well with the Royals' excellent outfield defense, which leads baseball by a wide margin in ultimate zone rating (UZR), UZR/150, and revised zone rating (RZR).

Is it unfair to judge Rick Porcello's entire season on one game? Probably, but it would be really nice to win tonight. Porcello has performed well in pressure situations before, although the legend of his performance in Game 163 seems to have grown with each passing season. We're a long way off from 2009, though, and Porcello has proven to be more than capable of shutting down an opposing lineup. He has not been quite so sharp lately, however. Porcello has given up 12 runs (eight earned) on 21 hits in his last two starts, and has a 4.13 ERA in his last five starts despite shutting out the Tampa Bay Rays on August 20th.

Hitter to fear: Josh Willingham (.381/.519/.810 in 27 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Alcides Escobar (.038/.038/.038 in 26 plate appearances)

Porcello has only made a pair of starts against the Royals this year, but he has been dominant in both outings. He held the Royals to two hits on four runs in seven innings during the Tigers' three game sweep at Kauffman Stadium in early May. Then, he one-upped himself with a seven inning, one run performance when the Tigers took three of four at Kauffman prior to the All-Star break. Plenty of Royals hitters have had past success against him, though. Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Josh Willingham are all hitting above .300 in 20+ career plate appearances.

Outlook

With the most important mantra of the series ("don't lose ground") no longer relevant, the Tigers now turn to a new slogan: go for the throat. The past two games have guaranteed that these teams will depart this series separated by no more than a game. Judging by the way the Royals have played in this series, that game seems to be much more important for their psyche at this point. Luckily for them, they have their ace on the mound tonight. Can the Tigers continue to roll against him? Or will Big Game James live up to his moniker?

Prediction

Shields and Alex Gordon put the Royals on their backs to maintain their AL Central lead.

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