Royals, Tigers ready for pivotal AL Central series

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Alcides Escobar stood in front of his locker after hitting a home run that helped boost the Royals to a victory over the White Sox, and glanced at a TV screen hanging to his left.

On it, the Twins were putting the finishing touches on a win over the Tigers.

"This is going to be a big series," Escobar said.

The results Wednesday night allowed Kansas City to claw within a half-game of Detroit in the AL Central, and sets up arguably the biggest series at Kauffman Stadium in decades. The two teams open a pivotal three-game series Friday night with just over a week left in the season.

"That's a big series, for the whole year," Escobar said, barely containing a smile. "The team is going really good right now. Detroit, everybody knows, is good. Coming in here, it's exciting, playing at home. It's going to be a great series."

Naturally, the soundtrack echoing through the clubhouse loudspeakers reflected the Royals' attitude: Archie Eversole's "We Ready," playing on repeat.

"If you would have seen it in here about 30 minutes ago, it was exciting," said Lorenzo Cain, whose three-run homer off White Sox ace Chris Sale paced the Royals on Wednesday night. "We're definitely ready to go."

Both teams are off Thursday, which means both bullpens will be rested. But they'll probably be an afterthought considering the heavy hitters who will be starting the series.

Former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander (13-12) heads to the mound Friday night for Detroit against left-hander Jason Vargas, who has had a resurgent year in Kansas City. Vargas is 11-9 with a 3.41 ERA, though he lost to the Tigers just over a week ago at Comerica Park.

The Tigers' Max Scherzer is on the mound Saturday against fellow ace James Shields. Rick Porcello starts for Detroit on Sunday against Royals veteran Jeremy Guthrie.

"Nothing needs to be said. There's not a person in this clubhouse that doesn't understand the importance of this series," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "This is fun. There should be a lot of energy — a lot more energy in the stands on the Royals side."

The Royals (83-68) have already clinched back-to-back winning seasons in non-strike-shortened years for the first time since 1988-89. With four more wins, they would eclipse last season's mark for their best record since going 92-70 during the '89 season.

The Royals are looking to win the division for the first time since 1985. But the Royals also began Thursday tied with Oakland for the first wild-card spot, and fans were queueing up in a line stretching hundreds of yards from the Kauffman Stadium ticket windows by midmorning in the hopes of purchasing wild-card tickets.

It's heady stuff for a city that has usually written off the Royals by mid-June, and turned its attention to the Chiefs across the parking lot by mid-September.

The pressure of a pennant race is familiar to the Tigers.

Anchored by their strong starting pitching and big-name stars such as Miguel Cabrera, they've captured the division each of the past three seasons. And each of those seasons, they've managed to at least reach the ALCS, falling in the World Series to San Francisco two years ago.

"What we've got to do is keep playing the game the way we know how to play, control what we can control," Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter said. "Go out there and prepare yourself and have good at-bats and play good defense and make good pitches. We do that, we'll be fine."

Besides, Hunter said, the Royals are still the ones doing the chasing.

"We're still in first place," he said. "We're doing what we have to do."

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