This year, the majors’ biggest surprise team has a division lead to defend.
In first place in August for the first time in 18 years, the Royals open what figures to be a heated three-game series against the AL East-leading Yankees.
Kansas City, which has not been in first place this late in a season since 1985, when it held the AL West lead en route to its first and only World Series title, regained the top spot in the AL Central over the weekend.
The Royals snapped a four-game skid by taking the final two games of their weekend series at Tampa Bay, leaving them a half-game ahead of the second-place Chicago White Sox in the Central.
Often counted out of pennant contention by April or May, the resilient Royals have defied their skeptics through the first four months of the season. A strong showing against the Yankees would further cement their position as legitimate postseason contenders.
The Yankees, three games in front of second-place Boston in the East, dropped two of three to AL West-leading Seattle over the weekend. New York has lost its last three series against playoff candidates, dropping two of three at Boston and Oakland before the Mariners beat them at Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees and Royals were fierce rivals more than 20 years ago. The teams met in four AL championship series from 1976-80, with the Yankees prevailing three times.
This week’s series, coupled with a three-game set in New York next week, could renew the rivalry, and serve as a showcase for a potential October showdown.
The Yankees boast a 33-8 mark against the Royals over the last five seasons, going 17-4 at Kansas City during that stretch.
STANDINGS: Yankees - 1st place, AL East. Royals - 1st place, AL Central.
YANKEES PROBABLE STARTER: David Wells (12-3, 3.69 ERA). Wells, pitching through nagging back pain, is 2-0 in his last five starts, but has not received a decision his last three times out. The burly left-hander yielded three runs and eight hits over seven innings Wednesday, but watched helplessly as the Yankees’ bullpen collapsed in a 5-4 loss to Texas. Wells has dominated the Royals during his career, going 14-3 with a 3.10 ERA in 29 appearances, including 20 starts.
ROYALS PROBABLE STARTER: Paul Abbott (no record). Abbott was acquired from Arizona on Saturday in exchange for minor league pitcher Aric Leclair. The veteran right-hander was 3-4 with a 3.95 ERA in 11 appearances, including eight starts, for Triple-A Tucson this year. He went 1-3 with an 11.96 ERA in five outings for Seattle last season, and has not pitched in the big leagues since. Abbott is helping to fill the rotation spot vacated by injured right-hander Jose Lima.
OFFENSIVE LEADERS: Yankees - Derek Jeter, .326 avg.; Jason Giambi, 33 HRs and 88 RBIs; Alfonso Soriano, 81 runs and 28 SBs. Royals - Raul Ibanez, .298 avg.; Carlos Beltran, 18 HRs, 70 runs and 30 SBs.; Ibanez and Beltran, 71 RBIs.
2002 SEASON SERIES: Yankees, 5-1.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Yankees - C Jorge Posada, who had missed two games due to a stiff neck, returned to the lineup Sunday. He went 2-for-5 with two RBIs. … New York swept its last two three-game series’ in Kansas City, and is 9-1 at Kauffman Stadium since 1999. … OF Bernie Williams is hitting .571 (8-for-14) with two homers and three RBIs in his career against RHP Abbott. Royals - 3B Joe Randa is hitting .350 with a homer and six RBIs in 20 career at-bats against LHP Wells. … Abbott is 1-4 with an 8.73 ERA in nine career appearances, including five starts, against the Yankees. … The Royals are opening a crucial stretch of 13 straight games against the Yankees and Central rival Minnesota Twins.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Yankees - 37-21 on the road; Royals - 31-27 at home.
INJURIES: Yankees - RHP Jose Contreras (shoulder), 15-day DL; RHP Steve Karsay (shoulder), 15-day DL; LHP Gabe White (groin), 15-day DL; RHP Jon Lieber (elbow), 60-day DL. Royals - INF Mendy Lopez (calf), 15-day DL; OF Michael Tucker (leg), 15-day DL; RHP Lima (groin), 15-day DL; RHP Kyle Snyder (shoulder), 15-day DL; RHP Miguel Asencio (elbow), 60-day DL.