KC Royals vs. Yankees: Always something to play for

(Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

The rivalry isn’t quite what it used to be. Gone are the unwavering intensity, fierce competition, and occasional fisticuffs of the mid and late ’70s meetings between the KC Royals and New York Yankees. The Yanks were Kansas City’s chief antagonists, cruelly beating them in three straight American League Championship Series (1976-78) to ruin the Royals’ attempts to reach their first World Series.

No, the luster of the clubs’ storied rivalry isn’t the same. They haven’t met in postseason play since the Royals finally broke through and swept New York in the 1980 ALCS to earn their first Series berth.

Yet it seems these teams always have something at stake when they meet, and their three-game series that kicks off tonight at Kauffman Stadium is no different. The Yanks and Royals are two teams heading in different directions, but both have much to play for.

For New York, it’s a playoff spot; for Kansas City, it’s some significant semblance of respectability.

Despite their 2-0 loss to Seattle Sunday, the Yankees remain in the thick of the race for October baseball. Winners of eight of their last 10, they’re just 6.5 games behind first-place Tampa Bay in the American League East and 2.5 back in the Wild Card race. The Royals, on the other hand, stand are 14 games below .500 (48-62) after avoiding a series sweep by beating St. Louis 6-5 Sunday, and are only a game out of the Central division cellar. Their playoff hopes are long gone.

But with 52 games left, a third 100-loss season in as many full campaigns seems improbable, while winning at least 70 games, which would be the best since they won 80 four years ago, is certainly a realistic goal.

How do the clubs stack up going into tonight’s series opener?

New York is hot, but a bit shorthanded as they get ready for the KC Royals.

The Yankees didn’t surprise anyone when they added talent, including outfielder Joey Gallo and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, at the trade deadline. But Rizzo, hitting .281 with three homers and a .400 OBP in nine Yankee games, won’t see action against Kansas City—he landed on the Injured List Sunday after testing positive for COVID-19. Unfortunately, he joins three other Yankees—starting pitchers Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery, and catcher Gary Sanchez—on the COVID list.

And ace closer Aroldis Chapman also won’t play in KC after left elbow inflammation caused New York to place him on the IL Saturday.

The Royals are also hampered. Reliever Kyle Zimmer is on the IL and will miss the Yankee series; Adalberto Mondesi is on a rehabilitation assignment with Triple-A Omaha. Andrew Benintendi, limited to two pinch-hit appearances since injuring his shoulder sliding last Tuesday, is day-to-day.

The KC Royals will unveil a new starting rotation against New York.

Brady Singer is scheduled to pitch the series’ last game Wednesday afternoon, and the slated start marks more than his return from right shoulder fatigue—it will also, per mlb.com Royals beat writer Anne Rogers, initiate a six-man rotation:

Adding another pitcher to the more conventional five-man rota gives Manager Mike Matheny room to continue starting relative newcomers Carlos Hernandez and Daniel Lynch down the stretch. Hernandez has been excellent since joining the rotation last month, and Lynch is pitching well after his recent return from the minor leagues.

Hernandez (3-1, 4.58) starts tonight against New York’s James Taillon (7-4, 4.04) and Lynch (2-3, 6.00) goes against Nestor Cortes (0-0, 2.15) Tuesday evening. As of late Sunday night, the Yankees hadn’t designated a starter to face Singer Wednesday.

Which players bear close watching in this New York-KC Royals series?

As usual, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton lead the Yankees at the plate. Judge is slashing .276/.365/.506 with 23 home runs and 52 RBIs, and Stanton has 17 homers, 54 RBIs, and a .264/.364/.456 line.

Defensively, New York must be wary of the Royals’ Whit Merrifield, who’s leading the majors with 30 stolen bases; he’s been caught only once, and that was on his very first steal attempt of the season. And Salvador Perez is back in the lineup after non-COVID illness kept him out of Friday night’s game in St. Louis. His next home run will break his personal record of 27, his 69 RBIs are just 11 short of his career-best 80, and he’s hitting a respectable .272.

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The KC Royals begin a three-game home set with the Yankees tonight at 7:10 p.m. CDT. Game 2 is Tuesday evening at 7:10 p.m., and the clubs finish New York’s only 2021 trip to Kansas City in a 1:10 p.m. contest Wednesday.