The final series of the first half for the Royals and Tigers could go a long way toward determining their trajectories for the second half.
The two teams will meet for four games beginning on Thursday night, when Detroit lefty Drew Smyly opposes Jeremy Guthrie at Kauffman Stadium.
Kansas City has appeared to be the Tigers' biggest threat to a fourth consecutive American League Central title for much of the season's opening three-plus months. The Royals actually briefly overtook Detroit the last time these teams met up, a four-game set in Detroit in mid-June.
But since then, the Tigers have rebuilt their division lead to 4 1/2 games.
Both teams notched wins on Wednesday. Detroit earned a 4-1 win over the Dodgers, while the Royals used a three-run ninth-inning home run by Salvador Perez to erase a two-run deficit for a 5-4 win over the Rays.
"It's going to be a big series -- top two teams in the division," Smyly said. "Hopefully, we can end on a strong note as a team, and go in there and take care of business."
Smyly added that, after a first half that included a number of personal and team ups and downs, he's hoping to find more consistency as he heads into the All-Star break.
This pitching matchup is a repeat from the June series. In that game, a 2-1 Royals win, both pitchers were effective. Smyly went seven innings and allowed only two runs. But Guthrie was even better -- 6 2/3 innings of four-hit, one-run ball.
Guthrie is coming off his shortest start of the season, in which he lasted just four-plus innings and allowed six runs off 11 hits in a loss to Cleveland.
"They just hit everything," Guthrie said. "I kept the ball down for the most part. A lot of singles -- they just kept hitting it where we weren't, and they just kept piling up."
A sweep by either team would provide a huge momentum boost entering the break. Should Detroit take all four, it would almost certainly have the largest division lead in baseball at the unofficial halfway point. If Kansas City managed a sweep, it would pull within a half game of the Tigers before the start of the second half.
Last year, the Royals went into the break after losing five straight (two at New York, three at Cleveland) but they came out of it with new vigor and got into the AL Wild Card race.
"It left a bad taste in our mouth, but I think the best thing for us was to take those four days off and everyone got away," left fielder Alex Gordon said. "We came back and forgot about it and got off to a hot start."
A big unanswered question going into the series is whether or not Gordon will play. Scratched from the lineup on Wednesday night, he'll have his sprained right wrist examined on Thursday in Kansas City. He did enter Wednesday's win in the ninth as a defensive replacement for Raul Ibanez.
Also uncertain to play is third baseman Mike Moustakas (flu), although he wouldn't be in line to play against the left-hander Smyly.
Royals: Vargas out of series finale
One thing that's certain about the Detroit series is that left-hander Jason Vargas won't make his scheduled start on Sunday. He was to be matched up against Justin Verlander.
But following Tuesday's start at Tropicana Field, Vargas was taken to a local hospital where he underwent a successful appendectomy on Wednesday night.
"Vargy's surgery went great, no complications," manager Ned Yost said. "They did it with a scope, so he got three little scars. Everything went well there."
That likely puts lefty Bruce Chen in line to come out of the bullpen to take Vargas' turn. The Royals will have to call up a pitcher to fill Vargas' roster spot before Thursday night's game.
Tigers: Club beating the best
Detroit has risen to the challenge when facing good teams this season. Against clubs that are currently above .500, the Tigers had a 22-13 mark after beating the Dodgers on Wednesday.
Manager Brad Ausmus said that when you're playing a team can be equally as important, if not more important, than who you're playing.
"When you play a better team or you face a better pitcher, you probably have a little bit more adrenaline, maybe slightly more concentration," he added. "I guess it's possible that against a lower-tier team, there's a little bit of a letdown but there shouldn't be."
Against the Royals, the second-place team in the AL Central, the Tigers shouldn't need any added motivation.
"This is the big leagues," Max Scherzer said. "You have to bring it for everybody. If you get that notion where we're only going to gear up for the big teams, you're going to get chewed up in this league. Every player in here knows you have to bring it every day. We respect every opponent we play."
• The Tigers hold a 6-3 lead in the regular-season series with the Royals.
• Kansas City finished its nine-game road trip at 5-4.