Fresh off a series in which they faced three frontline starters, the Royals must take on Mariners standout Hisashi Iwakuma in the opener of a three-game series with Seattle on Friday.
Kansas City, which used a 6-1 road trip to vault into first place in the American League Central, returns to Kauffman Stadium looking to rebuild a new winning streak after its 10-game run was snapped in Detroit on Thursday.
The Royals took three of four against the Tigers in their last series, dealing with Detroit's gauntlet of right-handed starters Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. Now they get Iwakuma on Friday.
"It's challenging. We're facing good pitching, but I'd rather face good pitching when we're hot, so we just go with it," Royals manager Ned Yost said.
James Shields is tasked with preserving first place as he goes against Iwakuma. Shields has trudged through an inconsistent June, starting the month with a rough outing in St. Louis, as the Cardinals boarded 13 runners and tallied seven runs (five earned) in Shields' 5 1/3 innings. After allowing no earned runs in a 2-1 win over the Yankees on June 8, he gave up 10 hits and three runs in six innings as the Royals beat the White Sox.
"His consistency is important, but the consistency of our entire staff is equally important," Yost said. "We've gotten consistent starts from Jason Vargas, from Jeremy Guthrie, Danny Duffy's been outstanding lately, [Yordano] Ventura's been great. So it's a combined effort from our starting rotation and bullpen that's got us through this."
Iwakuma, however, has been lights out against the Royals in his first two meetings, going 2-0 with no runs allowed and 16 strikeouts in 16 innings. That includes eight innings of four-hit ball with seven strikeouts and no walks in a 1-0 victory at Safeco Field on May 8 this season.
He posted nearly exactly the same line in his last outing of the 2013 season, when Iwakuma ended the Royals' playoff aspirations. His eight-inning, four-hit, zero-run performance mathematically eliminated Kansas City from the postseason on Sept. 25, 2013.
The biggest question for Iwakuma this season has been his health. After finishing third in the American League Cy Young Award voting last year, he missed the first month of this season with a torn tendon in his right middle finger. He's gone 5-3 with a 2.59 ERA in nine starts since his return, but is dealing with a stiff neck that popped up prior to his last start Sunday against the Rangers.
After trainers helped work out the kink in the bullpen prior to his start, the 33-year-old went out and threw eight innings in a 5-1 victory in which he allowed one run on six hits. Iwakuma wasn't able to throw his normal between-start bullpen session this week, but said Thursday he's feeling better.
"I did my flat-ground throwing yesterday and wasn't feeling anything," Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. "So that's good progress and hopefully it turns out to be nothing tomorrow. I've been getting a lot of treatment ... laser, ice, [stimulation]. It's all helped a lot."
Royals: Gordon ailing
Left fielder Alex Gordon was a surprise scratch from the lineup just before Thursday's game.
Flu-like symptoms were cited as the reason Gordon missed his first game of the season, and it's unclear whether he'll return to the lineup on Friday.
Gordon's been arguably Kansas City's best player this season, making miraculous play after miraculous play in the outfield and being the only hitter in the lineup consistently producing.
He's posted a .288/.368/.458 slash line in 71 games this year, and his 4.1 wins above replacement ranks him third among position players.
Mariners: Zunino learning on the job
While catcher Mike Zunino has seen his batting average dip to .219 following a rough stretch at the plate (.188 in his past 38 games after hitting .274 the first month), manager Lloyd McClendon remains very high on the 2012 first-round Draft pick.
Zunino has been outstanding defensively and has shown some power at the plate with seven home runs and 22 RBIs. His skipper said the overall offense will come in time for the 23-year-old.
"I see a young man that has a bright future, is learning the league and right now he's been swinging and missing a little bit," McClendon said. "But when he shores things up, he's a fast learner. I see a future All-Star catcher, that's what I see. He's in his first full year and he's going to struggle. It happens. They all struggle at some point. He'll be fine."
• Of the 12 current Royals who have faced Iwakuma, only Eric Hosmer (3-for-6) and Gordon (2-for-6) have more than one hit.
• Royals right-handed batters are hitting 0-for-28 with 11 strikeouts against Iwakuma. Lefties are 7-for-27 with one double, one walk and five strikeouts.
• The Mariners have three offensive starters on the 15-day disabled list in designated hitter Corey Hart (hamstring), right fielder Michael Saunders (shoulder) and first baseman Justin Smoak (quad). Smoak began a Minor League rehab assignment on Wednesday with Triple-A Tacoma, while Saunders and Hart are expected to begin their rehab stints this weekend.
Jackson Alexander is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.