In what has to be one of the most surprising mid-season matchups of first-place teams in recent memory, the Kansas City Royals commence their third straight series versus an American League West opponent tonight. That Kansas City's opponent in this evening's duel between first-place clubs is the Houston Astros is a shock to nearly everyone. Sure, the Royals were not the chic pick to win the American League Central after losing James Shields, Norichika Aoki, and Billy Butler in the offseason, but Houston was still trying to build back after the most complete tear-down in a rebuild possibly ever and looked to be at least a year away from being a competitive baseball team.
While Houston's recipe for success may be testing the bounds of conventional models for sustained success, the same was said for Kansas City's approach to building a winner last year.
Hurling orbs tonight for each team are pitchers who few thought would be called upon--at least this soon--to help their squads this season.
Pitching for the Royals is Joe Blanton, who left the game last year but has enjoyed a resurgence initially out of the bullpen and now as a spot starter for the Royals. His 8.00 K/BB, 2.60 FIP, and 2.94 xFIP would at least start to indicate that Blanton's 1.73 ERA isn't entirely the byproduct of good fortune, though much of that production did come in seven relief appearances.
On the Astros side of the ledger, 2012 supplemental first round draft pick Lance McCullers is making his eighth start after being promoted directly from Double-A Corpus Christi in mid-May. In this time, McCullers has done what many would have assumed based upon his minor league résumé (strike opponents out to the tune of 10.10 K/9 and 27.4 K%) while surprising with an uncharacteristically low 3.11 BB/9 and 8.4 BB%, both marks being significantly lower than any of his corresponding marks in the minors. Whether this major-league success is the product of a meaningful adjustment made upon reaching the bigs and receiving improved instruction from the Astros' major-league pitching staff or this aspect of his game comes crashing back down to presupposed levels of performance based upon his minor-league numbers is something that is yet to be seen.