SPORTS

AL Wild Card game: 3 things to watch

09/30/2014 12:41 EDT | Updated 11/30/2014 05:59 EST
One team is happy just to be here after 29 years in the doldrums; the other is getting a reprieve after a dreadful second half that nearly ruined its season.

The Kansas City Royals host the Oakland A's at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday night (8:07 p.m. ET) in the opener of Major League Baseball's 2014 post-season. The winner of the one-game American League wild card showdown earns a spot in the AL Division Series against the AL West champion Los Angeles Angels.

The Royals have snapped the longest playoff drought in North American major sports with their first post-season appearance since 1985, when a George Brett-led team won the first and only World Series title in team history.

Kansas City battled the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central all the way to the final day of the season, falling one game short in their bid for a division title. Only on the penultimate day of the regular season did the Royals secure a wild card spot.

Oakland, considered baseball's best team earlier this year, went all out in a bid to bolster its lineup to go deep into the playoffs. The A's traded for starters Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester in deals that cost them top prospects and starting outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.

The acquisitions didn't seem to help, though, as the A's held a huge lead over the Angels in the AL West mid-way through the season but limped home with a 16-31 second-half record to barely scrape into the playoffs on the final day.

Here are three things to watch in Tuesday's wild card showdown:

Starting pitchers: Jon Lester vs. James Shields

Lester has been on two World Series champions with the Boston Red Sox and has an exemplary post-season record. He's 6-4 with a 2.11 earned-run average in 13 appearances, 11 of them starts. Last October he allowed one earned run in 15 1/3 innings, helping Boston to its third title in 10 seasons. After being dealt from the Red Sox, Lester was 6-4 for the A's with a 2.35 ERA.

They call him Big Game James, and James Shields was a key acquisition for the Royals two years ago from the Tampa Bay Rays. He's contributed 27 wins over the last two seasons, with nearly identical ERAs of 3.15 in 2013 and 3.21 this year. Shields was 1-0 with a 3.21 ERA in two starts against Oakland this season, but he hasn't been stellar in the playoffs. He was 2-4 with a 4.98 ERA in three post-seasons with Tampa.

Experience: A's have plenty, Royals don't

Making their third straight trip to the playoffs and their eighth trip since 2000, the A's have a considerable advantage over the fledgling Royals. Second-year sensation Sonny Gray was brilliant for Oakland last season against Detroit, extending the series to five games. Coco Crisp, Josh Donaldson, Josh Reddick and others have played beyond the regular season before.

The Royals are real newcomers to this post-season thing. Other than Shields, their big guns — Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and burgeoning star catcher Salvador Perez — haven't been subjected to post-season pressure.

Offence: Royals weak, A's banged up

Kansas City had a team batting average of .263, good for second in the American League, but was last in home runs, not even reaching the century mark. For all their speed, the Royals were in the middle of the pack in runs. Gordon led the way with 19 homers and 94 RBIs but no regular hit above .270.

Oakland's 729 runs ranked third in the AL, but how healthy is the A's lineup? Josh Donaldson, who led the team in homers and RBIs, has been battling hip, hamstring and knee woes all season. Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick missed a bunch of games and Brandon Moss, a 25-homer man, suffered a power outage in the second half and is scheduled for hip surgery after the season..

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