As a steady rain soaked Kauffman Stadium on Monday evening, postponing the third game of the American League Championship Series, the Royals huddled to debate the merits of reconfiguring their playoff rotation.
Jeremy Guthrie will still start on Tuesday night against Orioles lefty Wei-Yin Chen. But for the next afternoon, when the Royals could have the chance to clinch their first World Series berth since 1985, the team has yet to announce a starter. The initial choice for the outing was Jason Vargas. But with an extra day off, the team now must debate bringing back game one starter James Shields on regular rest for game four.
Manager Ned Yost indicated there was “a chance” Shields would return for game four. He declined to tip his hand.
“We’ll look at it (Tuesday),” Yost said after the game was officially postponed.
His Baltimore counterpart, Buck Showalter, found himself in a similar position with his game one starter, Chris Tillman. Showalter mimicked Yost in his answer: Perhaps Tillman could pitch on Wednesday, but only time would tell.
Yost painted the primary factor behind the decision as whether Shields would benefit from an extra day of rest, which he would receive if the team opted to stick with Vargas for the fourth game. Pitching coach Dave Eiland also mentioned the importance of keeping sharp Vargas, who last pitched on Oct. 2, in case the team advanced past this round.
Neither pitcher shed much light on how the postponement affected them. Shields appeared at his locker near the tail end of a 20-minute open clubhouse, and politely declined an interview request. When asked about grappling with the uncertainty of his next assignment, Vargas offered little.
“I don’t know,” Vargas said. “I haven’t heard anything about that. So, I don’t know. I couldn’t give you a ‘for sure’ answer on that, or not.”
Yost indicated he expected to make his decision before the game began on Tuesday.
During his nine seasons in the majors, Shields has appeared on five days of rest 96 times. His ERA in those games was 3.74, which is worse than the 3.55 mark he posted in 159 starts on regular rest.
Yet, this late in the season, all pitchers can benefit from a little more time to recuperate, pitching coach Dave Eiland said. Eiland stressed he felt confident Shields would be fine either way.
The Orioles taxed Shields for four runs in five innings during the first game of this series. The outing fit a pattern this October. Shields has pitched to a 5.63 ERA in his three starts.
“Obviously, he hasn’t been at his best,” Eiland said. “He hasn’t been at his worst, either. I think a lot it, too, he’s actually pitched better than his numbers show.”
The Orioles boast a lineup stocked with right-handed power, which is one reason the Royals chose to use right-handed starters like Shields, Yordano Ventura and Guthrie in the first three games. The team deemed Vargas a better option than Danny Duffy for the fourth spot in the playoff rotation.
But with their undefeated record in the postseason, it has been hard to find Vargas work. He’s had nearly two weeks off since limiting the Angels to two runs in six innings in the first game of the American League Division Series. Eiland mentioned the club would need him in the next round.
“Do you want to bring Vargy in and keep him sharp, in case we advance?” Eiland said. “We feel confident in Vargy, too. Look at the year he had. We wouldn’t be here without him.”
Vargas posted a career-best 3.71 ERA in 187 innings this year. But he faded in September, allowing 18 runs in the 18 innings of his last four starts. Even so, the Royals trusted him to start their last series in Anaheim. They would trust him again against Baltimore.
“We have options,” Eiland said. “And we just have to figure out which way we’re going to go.”