Tonight the MLB playoffs kick off at 8:07 pm ET with the doe-or-die American League Wild Card Game featuring GM Billy Beane’s puttering Oakland Athletics—who are desperately trying to justify the Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester trade it made with Boston at a time when they had the best record in MLB—at the young gun Kansas City Royals, who are entering the land of October for the first time since winning the WS c’hip in 1985, when George Brett, Bret Saberhagen, Dan Quisenberry, Willie Wilson and “the black” Frank White was there to excite.
It’s been 10,565 days since the Royals last made a playoff appearance and this one will be the 8th in franchise history.
Since swapping Cespedes for All-Star lefty Lester, the A’s offense and division lead has disappeared quicker than Jennifer Hudson’s waistline . The Oakland A’s have the worst second half winning percentage for a playoff team in MLB history at .433. Lester is a proven World Series hurler and Oakland is hoping he can neutralize their current nosedive as well as the speed of the Royals (MLB high 153 swipes).
Beane was banking on Lester being in this kind of position (maybe not a one-game, Wild Card elimination, but nonetheless the magnitude of the moment is huge). When he sent 100 RBI’s from that Oakland lineup to Boston in exchange for Lester and his 2.11 ERA in 76 2/3 career postseason innings, this is the type of game that was supposed to justify the trade. Tossing a guy out there who almost can’t lose in these kinds of situations. This is baseball at its best and the mound matchup is doper than a Harlem junky in the 70s.
The winner will move on to face The Los Angeles Angels on Thursday at Anaheim.
After 162 games of hardcore diamond-mining, playoff survival comes down to one game between a feared post season pistol-popper versus a guy whose nickname is “Big Game” James Shields. The two pitchers are familiar with each other as both anchored formidable staffs in their stints on AL East teams. Lester has already defeated the Royals twice this season.
“Any time you’re facing Jon Lester it’s a battle," Shields warned. "He’s one of the best in the game. We’ve had a lot of battles over the years in the AL East so its going to be a lot of fun.”
Shields (227 IP, 180 K) is the staff ace and clearly a leader in the Royals clubhouse. Shields has brought an edge and winning confidence to Kansas City. He’s aided manager Ned Yost in turning the franchise around and helping the young players entering unchartered waters flex a winning swagger throughout the season.
“The one thing I really harp on is enjoying the moment,” Shields said on MLB Network, “and if you do that you stay lose and have fun and will play to the best of your ability. We’ve been doing a great job in September; especially of doing that. We got guys who have 11 years in the big leagues and never been in playoffs too. We just have to enjoy moment and go for ride.”
The Royals seemed to be pretenders and embarking on their traditional second half meltdown when the team lost four straight near the end of July. Shields and veteran slugger Raul Ibanez called a team meeting on July 22nd which inspired the team and since they broke huddle, the Royals sport the third-best record in MLB.
“James Shields has changed the culture of KC and left a legacy and impact that will last beyond his years,” said MLB Network's John Smoltz, who survived years of playoff pressure cookers with Atlanta in his day.
Shields lauded Ibanez’s veteran mindset and credited him with reassuring the team that they had the talent to compete with any MLB squad. The Royals don’t have big boppers like Oakland bashers Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss . In fact, the Royals are the first team in MLB history to make the postseason finishing last in baseball in home runs and walks.
It’s all about the Royals' pitching which boasted a 3.14 ERA in September, but Shields’ career postseason stats don’t measure up to his regular season-inspired, vaunted nickname. He’s an unimpressive 2-4 with a 4.98 in his postseason career with Tampa Bay. The Royals will settle for “Complete Game James,” as Tampa Bay fans and local media labeled him in 2011 when he led the team with 11 complete games.
Shields relies heavily on his off speed power pitches and changeups and when he’s in the zone, he’s deadly. His job will be to maximize the Kauffman Stadium crowd electricity and rely on his experience of leading a team with low expectations to the promise land as he did when he became the first and only Tampa Bay Rays pitcher to win a WS game in 2008 (Rays fell to Philadelphia Phillies in 5 games). Shields will have to bring the ruckus because Lester is a man on a mission as well. He's pitching to save Oakland’s once promising season and every pitch will be another pivotal page in the book outlining GM Bean’s legacy.