Before the season started, you probably would have pegged the Detroit Tigers' starting rotation as having a major edge over the rest of the American League Central.
Royals starters have posted a 2.46 ERA over the last two weeks, second among all major league rotations. The Royals have gone 12-2 wand held opponents to a .260 on-base percentage, second-best in the majors over that span. Each of their top four has been really good of late.
Left-hander Jason Vargas won Wednesday with efficiency, throwing a 97-pitch shutout and retiring the last 23 Athletics hitters. He’s the first Royals pitcher to throw a complete game of fewer than 100 pitches in more than four years (Luke Hochevar was the last in 2009). It was Vargas’ second shutout in his past three starts against the Athletics.
Vargas went to his fastball as often as in any start this season (66 of 97 pitches), but kept the Athletics off balance in two-strike situations, with 12 of his 25 offerings being offspeed pitches. Oakland hitters were 1-for-12 in two-strike situations.
The most encouraging thing about Vargas since his return from the disabled list at the start of the month? In three starts, he’s thrown 18 1/3 innings and walked no one. He went to three-ball counts on four hitters on Wednesday and retired them all.
The rest of the pitching royalty
Three other pitchers have carried the Royals through their successful run.
Best Record in MLB
Since July 30
James Shields is two wins shy of matching his 2013 total, and is by far Kansas City’s biggest asset. The Royals' pitcher operates much like fellow American League ace Felix Hernandez. Although Shields went 1-3 in five starts in July, he gave up more than three earned runs in only one outing. He had the largest win streak of anyone in the rotation (five games earlier this season) and owns the best strikeout-to-walk ratio on the team (3.88).
Behind him is Yordano Ventura, who has strung together three straight good starts, posting a 2.37 ERA and holding opponents to a .205 batting average over his past 19 innings.
Two of those have come at Kauffman Stadium, which seems to be his comfort zone. In 14 home starts this season, he’s had a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and allowed only six home runs in 75 innings. On the road, his strikeout-to-walk rate is 2.2-to-1, and he’s yielded seven homers in 58 innings.
The key for Ventura will be how many bullets he has left in his arm for the stretch run. Opponents hit .167 (18-for-108) in at-bats ending against his fastball when it’s 98 to 99 mph. When it’s 94 to 97 mph, they hit .330 (66-for-200).
Another youngster is left-hander Danny Duffy, who has come up big for the Royals since his return from Tommy John surgery. He’s in the midst of a six-start run in which he’s posted a 1.95 ERA.
Duffy has been among the best pitchers this season at finishing off hitters with two strikes. Opponents are hitting a meager .131 in those situations. He’s also allowed only 24 percent of opponents who put a ball in play against him (that didn’t go over the fence) to reach base. Only Chris Young (23 percent) of the Seattle Mariners has a better rate.