The Royals wrap up their pivotal three-game series against the Boston Red Sox on national television, as the game will be broadcast on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball with Dan Shulman, Jessica Mendoza, Aaron Boone, and Buster Olney. When announced a few weeks ago, the game seemed to be a matchup of one contender, and a Royals team left playing out the string. Instead, the Royals have gotten hot, winning nine in a row, making this a crucial game for the Wild Card chase. I talked to Dan Shulman before the game to get his thoughts on how the American League was shaping up as teams head into the September stretch.
Do the Royals have a shot at taking a playoff spot, or do they have too much to overcome?
Dan Shulman: They have a shot, but they’re going to have to continue to play well. There is a fair amount of baseball left to be played, so being a few games back with 30+ games left is not insurmountable. The bigger issue may be that they have to overcome so many teams to get there. But they’re the champs for a reason. They have a lot of guys who have played well under pressure, and there is a lot of confidence and belief in that clubhouse and in that organization that they can get there.
The bullpen has been great lately. Danny Duffy has been on fire, and Yordano Ventura has been better. There are a lot of positive signs right now for the Royals.
You mention Duffy, how do you handicap his chances of winning the Cy Young Award?
Dan Shulman: Nobody is running away with it right now, and if you look at Duffy’s innings compared to the leaders, he’s about 30 innings behind. I think it might be taken into consideration that some of the other guys have been starters the entire season. J.A. Happ is a contender, and Cole Hamels is in the conversation. Corey Kluber is pitching really well right now, and I think he could make a late run. Chris Sale is there as well as Aaron Sanchez maybe if he stays in the rotation for Toronto through September. I think Zach Britton is going to get some consideration for the season he has had at closer for the Orioles. I think there are 7-8 guys in consideration, but I think Duffy is in the conversation.
This is the fourth year in a row the Royals will be playing meaningful games in September, but they still seem to wear the underdog badge of honor. Is the national perception that they’ve arrived or is there still some skepticism?
Dan Shulman: I think they’ve arrived. They went to Game 7 of the World Series two years ago, and they won the World Series last year. I don’t know who much more you can arrive. I don’t view them as the underdog or the “Little Engine that Could.” They have definitely arrived. They have the confidence and belief in themselves. This is a really good team. Now there are a couple of key players from last year that aren’t there this year, and there have been some injuries that have impacted this team. But I don’t think anyone takes the Kansas City Royals lightly anymore.
Last year it seemed like the Royals and Blue Jays steamrolled through the American League and were the heavy favorites to win the pennant. This year it seems more wide open. Who do you see as the frontrunner right now?
Dan Shulman: I think it could be wild. I think the Texas Rangers are really, really good. They haven’t scored quite as many runs as they thought they would, but they have a really good lineup. They have Cole Hamels at the top of that rotation, and I think they have a pretty good bullpen. They didn’t get that stud closer at the deadline that maybe they were looking for, but they improved the team in other ways. And if Carlos Gomez can help them, that just makes them deeper. In my mind, Texas is the best team.
I really like Cleveland too, if their starting pitching can hold up. Their offense has been a big surprise, much better than people think. They have Andrew Miller in the bullpen. I think it is obviously a great pick up for them, in whatever role they want to use him in. I would put Texas at #1, Cleveland at #2.
I think there is a cluster of teams after that. I think Boston is in there, Toronto is in there. Detroit is a very dangerous team. Kansas City is in there. I think it is pretty wide open, but if I had to pick one team, Texas is the best team in the league.
What are some of the storylines you plan on discussing during Sunday’s broadcast?
Dan Shulman: For the Red Sox, what Mookie Betts is doing is astounding. He might win MVP. If I had a vote - and I don’t - I would have Jose Altuve at #1, with Betts in his rearview mirror. The young guys for Boston - Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley - have been outstanding. David Ortiz is having a historic season at age 40, with 40 doubles and 30 homers. I think the Red Sox starting pitching has gotten a lot better in the last two weeks, and a lot of people don’t realize that. Steven Wright has come off the DL, Drew Pomeranz is pitching better, David Price is pitching better. I think the big issue for Boston right now is the bullpen.
For Kansas City, their scoreless streak from the bullpen has been amazing. The three starters who pitch in this series - Ian Kennedy, Danny Duffy, and Yordano Ventura - are all pitching well. For them, I think it has been about getting healthier. They have also had some nice contributions from Matt Strahm in the bullpen, Paulo Orlando in the outfield, and Cheslor Cuthbert at third base. They’ve had some nice unsung heroes on this team. I think the big storyline for them is, is there enough time left for them to make the playoffs?
Many thanks to Dan Shulman for his time. You can catch him and the ESPN team broadcasting live from Fenway Park on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball on August 28 at 7pm CT.