Today is the most important game of the year

Billy Butler. Billy Butler. - Jason Miller

Truth.

The Royals have played 145 games. There are 17 games remaining. They are three games back of the second Wild Card spot.

That makes this afternoon's game against the Cleveland Indians the most important game of the year.

Scratch that.

This is the most important game of the decade.

On this date 10 years ago, the Royals record stood at 74-70 and they were 3.5 games back of the Minnesota Twins for the AL Central. They would hang at 3.5 games back of the leaders for a few days before folding over the season's final two weeks.

Will this year be different?

So much will be riding on the arm of James Shields who is looking to rebound from his worst performance of the season. Really, his start last Friday was so awful, there's just no need to rehash. It happened. It sucked. Time to move forward.

Before that start, Shields put together a solid streak of five starts in a row where he posted a Game Score better than 50. During that time, he threw 35.1 innings with 30 strikeouts, 12 walks, no home runs and a 1.53 ERA. The walk rate of 3.05 wasn't that special, but he was minimizing the damage by keeping the ball in the park.

He didn't allow a home run to the power hitting Tigers in his last start, but damn, did they string together some hits. Fourteen to be exact. The 14 hits were the most allowed by a starting pitcher this year. But don't worry. Frank Ned Yost knows what he's doing. He's been in a pennant race before, you know. (Sure he was fired during that pennant race, but he was there. That's what counts.)

Sorry. Was I talking about Big Game's last start? Oops.

Forward. Right. Looking forward.

This is exactly the kind of game Shields was acquired for last December. Dare I say, Dayton Moore's Process has put this team in contention. (Even if it's the fringe, it's contention. It counts.) Shields was brought aboard because he's pitched in important games in the regular season (and October) and because he provided a valuable Veteran Presence™ to the rotation. Today's start isn't a referendum on The Trade, because that would be short-sighted and stupid, but a positive outing would go a long way for a fanbase eager for October baseball.

Yost is sending this lineup out to face lefty Scott Kazmir.

Alex Gordon - LF
Emilio Bonifacio - 2B
Eric Hosmer - 1B
Billy Butler - DH
Salvador Perez - C
Justin Maxwell - RF
Jarrod Dyson - CF
Jamey Carroll - 3B
Alcides Escobar - SS

Jamey Carroll starting at third. I understand the reasoning behind setting Mike Moustakas against the lefty, but Jamey Carroll? Makes me feel like a sucker for posting daily Wild Card updates.

Keep the patience today. Kazmir is having a good season. Especially given his arm issues and road back to the majors. While his average fastball velocity is a strong 92 mph, he doesn't pitch deep into games. Among the 68 starting pitchers who have qualified for the ERA title, Kazmir ranks 60th in average innings per start. He rarely lasts more than six innings. This means the Royals should get to the Cleveland bullpen early this afternoon. Their bullpen ERA this season is 3.82 which ranks 10th out of the AL's 15 teams.

The added bonus to the Royals being in the hunt is Yost at the controls. The man can't manage his way out of a paper bag. Ever since he was hired, I maintained he was a caretaker manager: At the controls to nurture the young talent and would be moved aside (or upstairs) once the Royals were in position to contend. If you believe Dayton Moore about the Royals being ahead of schedule, then you probably know that his selection of managers may very well cost his team a chance at October baseball. Cross your fingers for the Royals to build a big lead early. I have zero confidence Yost can negotiate the late innings of a September baseball game. Have mercy we actually play in October.

I outlined the day's key Wild Card contests in an earlier post. The Royals are the first game of the day, which will enable us to binge on baseball the rest of the day for a little September scoreboard watching. The scoreboard watching is easier with a win.

It seems trite to write this, but we are now at a stage where every game is critical. The Royals need to capitalize today against a team that is ahead of them in the Wild Card standings. The gap between the Royals and the lead is small, but the number of teams between them and the postseason is daunting. A win today and they pull to within a half game of Cleveland. Another step closer.

Let's go, Big Game.

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