The Kansas City Royals are running away with the AL Central, which means they're in the unfamiliar position of being ahead of the Detroit Tigers.
Though the balance of power in the division has shifted, Justin Verlander has reverted to vintage form, and that could mean a challenging series opener on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium.
With the AL's best record and baseball's only double-digit lead atop a division, the Royals (80-50) are poised for their first division crown since 1985 when they won their only World Series title. Kansas City lost 3-2 Sunday at Tampa Bay, but still has won 17 of 23 and is 27-10 at home since June 7.
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While the Royals only hold a 7-6 edge in the season series, they're 20 games ahead of the last-place Tigers (60-70), who are virtually guaranteed to miss the postseason for the first time in five years. Losers of nine of 10, Detroit hasn't finished below Kansas City since 2008.
Verlander (2-6, 3.45 ERA) owns at least one win against the Royals in every year of his career except his first season in 2005 when he made two starts and didn't face them. He could be poised to continue that trend with a 1.38 ERA over his last seven outings and 31 strikeouts over 29 innings in the last four.
He one-hit the Los Angeles Angels in a 5-0 victory Wednesday, fanning nine in his first complete game since 2012. Verlander had posted a 6.62 ERA in his first six outings after missing two months with a triceps injury.
"I think the last month's been really encouraging for me," he said after last week's win. "This just reaffirms that."
Verlander is just 2-3 with a 5.61 ERA in his last five meetings with the Royals and surrendered five runs and a season high-matching 10 hits over seven innings in a 5-1 home loss Aug. 4. The right-hander's 19 career wins against Kansas City are his most versus one team, however.
Starting for the Royals will be Johnny Cueto (2-3, 3.95), who allowed just six runs in his first four games for his new club but has been shakier in back-to-back losses against Boston and Baltimore. He allowed 12 earned runs and 21 hits over 11 innings, and Wednesday's 8-5 loss to the Orioles marked the first time he yielded three home runs since 2010.
"It feels a little weird because it doesn't happen to me very often," he said. "I'm not a robot. Just have to keep working, get ready for the next one."
This is already his third matchup with the Tigers since being traded to Kansas City. He turned in a four-hitter in a 4-0 victory Aug. 10 after giving up two runs over seven innings in a 2-1 loss Aug. 5.
Cueto also gave up three runs in 5 1-3 innings in an 8-4, 13-inning win with Cincinnati on June 17.
He hasn't lost three straight starts since 2012.
Eric Hosmer has hit safely in 22 of his last 23 meetings with Detroit with a 1.083 OPS in that span, while Lorenzo Cain is hitting .467 in his last eight home matchups with the Tigers. Cain is also batting .387 during an eight-game hitting streak overall.
Salvador Perez has hit .474 with two home runs and seven doubles in 38 at-bats against Verlander.