Royals pay a visit to Red Sox

( - For a team aiming for its first playoff berth in a generation, what better beginning to the second half than a date with the defending World Series champions.

That's the obstacle the Kansas City Royals will have in front of them on Friday night when they resume play following the All-Star break with the first of three games at Fenway Park with the Boston Red Sox.

James Shields gets the start on the mound for the visitors, who haven't seen the postseason since they defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games to win the World Series in 1985. The Royals open the back end of the 2014 schedule trailing the Detroit Tigers by 6 1/2 games in the American League Central, though they're just 2 1/2 games behind Seattle for the second of two wild card positions.

Kansas City is three games better at this point than last season, when it won 86 games -- its most since 1989.

"The last couple of years, we've been a good second-half team," manager Ned Yost said. "I think we've got our best baseball ahead of us."

Boston, meanwhile, is 15 wins behind the pace that got it to 95 wins last season. The Red Sox are knotted with Tampa Bay for fourth place in the AL East, which places the pair 9 1/2 games behind front-running Baltimore.

The hosts led the American League in runs last season, but are last so far this year.

"No one has given up anything. No one has conceded anything," manager John Farrell said. "After we get through Kansas City, I believe we have the next (13 games) against teams that are ahead of us. Each one has increasing significance."

Helping that cause could be a return by outfielder Shane Victorino, who's not played since May 23 thanks to leg and back injuries.

Shields defeated his former team, the Rays, with seven innings of scoreless ball, then dropped a 5-1 decision to Detroit after allowing two runs in seven innings of his final pre-break start.

He's pitched at least seven innings in four of his last five starts, and is 3-2 with a 3.02 earned run average in his last six games against Boston.

"We're still hanging in there, but we have a lot of good baseball left," Shields said.

The Red Sox counter with Clay Buchholz, who struck out 12 batters and allowed three hits while beating Houston in his last outing before the All-Star Game. He is 2-1 with a 2.73 ERA in his last four starts.

He's won four in a row against Kansas City with a 1.35 ERA.

"We've got a lot of baseball to play," Buchholz said. "It doesn't really matter what your record is at the end of the year, just as long as you're at the top of the board."

Kansas City went 5-2 against Boston last season.