CLEVELAND -- With September looming, all series between contending teams take on added importance.That will be the case Friday night as the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals play the opener of a three-game weekend series at Progressive Field.
This is a stretch of the schedule in which the American League Central rivals play each other six times in 10 days. The Indians won two of three in Kansas City last weekend.
The first-place Indians lead second-place Minnesota by 5 1/2 games and Kansas City by six. However, the Royals are squarely in the hunt for in the second AL wild card -- a half-game behind the Twins, tied with the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners -- so the series will be a big one for both teams.
"We'll go into Cleveland knowing we've got a tough series on our hands, and try to go out there and win at least two," Royals designated hitter Brandon Moss said.
The Royals have won seven of their past 11 games while the Indians have won 10 of their last 14.
"I think we're playing pretty good right now," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "Every series is important. It's the luck of the draw. There were teams that caught us when we were cool and they were happy, and there were teams that caught us when we were hot and they weren't so happy. You just go play them."
The Friday starter for Kansas City will be Jason Vargas, for whom 2017 has been a tale of two seasons. In his first 16 starts, Vargas (14-7, 3.59 ERA) was 12-3 with a 2.22 ERA. In his past eight starts, he is 2-4, 7.15.
His last start was also against Cleveland, a 5-0 loss Saturday in which he allowed four runs and six hits with seven strikeouts and three walks in 4 2/3 innings.
Vargas is 8-4 with a 4.03 ERA in 17 career starts versus the Indians, including 2-1, 3.68 in four turns this season.
Left-hander Ryan Merritt, who specializes in being recalled from Triple-A Columbus to make spot starts for the Indians, gets the ball Friday. It will be Merritt's fourth appearance for the Indians this season and third spot start.
In the two previous spot starts, he posted a 3.52 ERA with no decisions. Counting one relief outing with Cleveland, he has no decisions and a 3.12 ERA this year.In 20 games (19 starts) for Columbus, Merritt is 11-5 with a 3.00 ERA.
Merritt's only major league win came in his only career appearance against the Royals on Sept. 30, 2016. He allowed one run and three hits with four strikeouts in five innings of a 7-2 victory.
The Indians are coming off a grueling four-game split with AL East-leading Boston this week. They are expected to welcome Carlos Santana back to the lineup after the first baseman missed the past three games because of lower back tightness.
"The hope is he can start (Friday)," Cleveland manager Terry Francona said. "He's doing much better."
The Indians were wildly inconsistent this week. They recorded a combined two runs and four hits Tuesday and Wednesday before exploding for 13 runs and 18 hits Thursday.
"When you figure out this game, let me know," Francona said.