Tigers, Royals are front and Central this weekend

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Two games in Minnesota this week perhaps dashed the theory that big-league playoff experience means a thing when it comes to winning high-stakes September games.

If the Tigers were so savvy, so sophisticated at beating teams because of their past three division titles, they realized no dividend against the last-place Twins. They lost two of three, in relatively ugly fashion, first when their bullpen blew up Tuesday and again Wednesday when pitching and Baserunning 101 classes together flunked.

So, their past postseason badges may be fairly irrelevant beginning tonight at Kauffman Stadium when the Tigers play their divisional mates, the Royals, in the first of a three-game series that will have the most direct effect during these remaining days on who wins the American League Central.

How they handle this weekend's showdown, which brings Detroit to Kansas City with a half-game lead, is more a study in emotions and expectations held by others. Tigers players don't necessarily buy into the psychological script.

"The regular season is not the playoffs," said Torii Hunter, who knows something about the postseason from his time with the Twins and Angels. "They're ain't nothing like the playoffs."

But in the next breath you get from Hunter a nod to this weekend's realities. It's the flip-side of a response you hear from various Tigers players and manager Brad Ausmus.

"We said in June this series wouldn't be important," Hunter recalls of a time when the Royals were a troubled bunch and fighting to play .500 ball. "But now, it is. They're right behind us. These games are pivotal."

Ausmus was walking a tightrope following Wednesday's 8-4 loss to the Twins, which followed Tuesday's ninth-inning foibles that led to a Twins rally and a 4-3 knockout of the Tigers a half-inning after J.D. Martinez had nearly won the game with a three-run homer.

He could not view the Royals series as a live-or-die duel when his team has 10 games remaining on the regular-season card. But he had to deal with the reality his gang either will leave Kansas City with a bigger lead or find itself with six days to make up ground in the chase to win the American League Central or at least snag a wild-card ticket.

"It's ultimately an extremely important series," said Ausmus, which was his tight synopsis.

No reason to add verbiage or pressure to a situation that, as Hunter said, is not yet as imposing as a best-of-five or best-of-seven playoff series.

The Tigers like their chances nonetheless as the theater begins at Kauffman Stadium. They have three warhorses set to start this weekend: Justin Verlander tonight, Max Scherzer on Saturday, and Rick Porcello on Sunday.

Of course, they also had Porcello on the mound Tuesday and David Price dueling against the Twins on Wednesday. Two of the team's big-gun pitchers couldn't deliver a victory when issues that either included pitching or involved assorted Tigers shortcomings cost Detroit a series victory.

It is easy to believe the greatest pressure, if it truly does exist in this weekend at Kauffman, will fall on Sunday's starter, Porcello. That will be the last chance Detroit and Kansas City have at dealing nose-to-nose with the other's place in the Central Division sweepstakes.

Porcello, along with Verlander and Scherzer, has been with the Tigers during these last three Octobers that saw the Tigers play in three American League Championship Series series and one World Series. He isn't the nervous type and wasn't jumpy even as a 20-year-old rookie in 2009.

He approaches the Kauffman convention with his typical low-pulse air.

"It's what it's all about, coming down to the wire," said Porcello, who this season has won 15 games for the Tigers. "But I think, for me, staying calm and staying collected works better than showing a lot of emotion.

"I know, as far as myself, I usually pitch better when I'm calm and relaxed. I'd call it a relaxed intensity. And that comes if you know you're prepared."

The Tigers mission is fairly simple, at least by baseball's wicked standards. Pitch well. Hit enough to support good pitching. Don't mess up in the field or on the basepaths.

Do all of the above and you'll beat the other guy. Fail at any of the game's basic tenets and previous Octobers won't matter in September.

On deck: Royals

Series: Three games, Friday-Sunday, Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri

First pitch: 8:10 p.m. Friday, 1:05 p.m. Saturday, 2:10 p.m. Sunday

TV/radio: ESPN2 and FSD Friday , Fox on Saturday, TBS and FSD on Sunday/97.1 tonight-Saturday, 1270 on Sunday

Series probables: Friday — RHP Justin Verlander (13-12, 4.81) vs. LHP Jason Vargas (11-9, 3.41). Saturday — RHP Max Scherzer (16-5, 3.26) vs. RHP James Shields (14-7, 3.15). Sunday — RHP Rick Porcello (15-11, 3.19) vs. RHP Jeremy Guthrie (11-11, 4.35)

Scouting report

Verlander: He would probably enjoy a re-start on 2014. It hasn't been up to Verlander standards. But don't discount him in these closing weeks. Fastball has been getting better, as well as his curve.

Vargas: Has been sturdy for the Royals and often tough on the Tigers. A good pitcher the Tigers bruised in his last start against them, but expect him, in a game this big, to be particularly sharp.