With a shortened major league schedule and expanded playoffs this year, division matchups matter more than ever. For the Chicago White Sox and the Kansas City Royals, who have each only played American League Central opponents thus far, the pressure is on early.
Thus, there may be an extra senseof urgency as the two teams meet for a three-game series in Kansas City beginning Friday. The White Sox enter at 2-4, while the Royals are 3-4.
"We can only control today," said Royals manager Mike Matheny, who is keeping a level head despite the added stakes. "Every single team has the potential of taking off on a really good run, and every team has the potential, if they let their guard down, to go on a really bad run.
"We're not going to over-think anything."
The White Sox had high aspirations for 2020. Chicago entered the season with a young, talented nucleus and the added several veterans, including pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez, catcher Yasmani Grandal and designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion. So far, they're hitting a respectable .255 as a team, but their ERA is 6.23 in six games.
Keuchel's White Sox debut was a strong one, allowing two runs in 5 1/3 innings in a win over the Minnesota Twins. He'll get the start on Friday for Chicago. He's 2-1 with a 3.79 ERA in his career at Kauffman Stadium.
"He can work to both sides of the plate," White Sox manager Rick Renteria said after Keuchel signed with the club in the offseason. "He keeps the ball down. His cutter can be very effective against righties, he'll backdoor you. We're going to take advantage of that, and thankfully he's with us."
The Royals were not expected to contend this season, and injuries and illness have contributed to a lot of their struggles so far. Expected Opening Day starter Brad Keller has not pitched yet as he still tries to build up his strength after being diagnosed with COVID-19 during summer camp. The same is true of Jakob Junis, who was supposed to fill one of the other starting spots.
Mike Montgomery, who earned a starting spot in summer training, had one outing before being placed on the injured list.
The Royals have already had one starting pitcher make his major league debut in right-hander Brady Singer, who took his second no-decision in Thursday's 5-3 win over the Tigers. Left-hander Kris Bubic will make his debut Friday night.
"I watched his maturity and mound presence (last season) and got to spend more time with him this spring," Matheny said of Bubic, who never pitched above Class A in the minor leagues. "Everything we saw from his first bullpen was pointing in the direction of 'wow, this kid is advanced.'
"I thought he responded very well to every situation. You can see that this guy is on top of his game."
Two-time defending major league hits leader Whit Merrifield has carried Kansas City's offense so far. He's hitting .333 through seven games. At the other end of the spectrum is Adalberto Mondesi, who started 2-of-21 in his first five games. He's improved to 4-of-8 in the last two games.
--Field Level Media