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Royals expect Shields to deliver in 2014

The Royals once again open the season as a trendy pick to compete in the American League Central -- or, at the very least, for one of the AL Wild Card slots -- as they look to break their 28-year postseason drought.

Kansas City's 162-game quest begins with a challenge, however, as the Royals open the season at 1:08 p.m. ET today in Detroit against the Tigers, who have won three consecutive AL Central crowns.

"We're definitely a better team this year, so it's good to start out against them," Royals designated hitter Billy Butler said. "It won't be the last time we see them, but we're starting it real early. We know what they're going to be bringing, just like they know what we are, so it should be fun. We're prepared for them, just like they are for us, so we'll see what happens."

Kansas City edged Detroit in last year's season series, 10-9, and caught fire after an 8-20 May, finishing with the AL's best second-half record (43-27). With Opening Day starter James Shields again anchoring the rotation and a maturing core ready to take another step forward, the Royals won't be sneaking up on anyone in 2014.

That includes old nemesis Justin Verlander, who, despite owning a 16-5 career record against the Royals, went just 1-3 against them in six starts last season.

"That's the great thing about Opening Day -- you don't know what's going to happen," said Verlander, who gets his seventh consecutive Opening Day nod. "I go back and look at us in '06, and nobody imagined us being where we were. That's the joy of Opening Day. We don't know. Nobody knows. This could be the first game of a [race] that comes down to the last game of the season. You never know."

At least one thing to anticipate this afternoon at Comerica Park, however, is a pitchers' duel.

Shields makes his second Opening Day start in as many seasons for the Royals -- and his sixth overall -- after going 13-9 with a 3.15 ERA in his debut season with Kansas City. Shields did exactly what was expected of him last season, throwing a Major League-high 228 2/3 innings over 34 starts, tying for the most in the Majors.

While Verlander's 2013 season wasn't vintage -- the right-hander went 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA -- he found his groove in September and the postseason. Finishing with such a flourish must have made it easier for new manager Brad Ausmus to tab Verlander for the opener over reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer.

Verlander and Shields faced off twice last season, with neither getting a decision. Because of that past, and their respective track records, Shields expects another well-pitched battle.

"I know we faced him three or four times in the season, but when you're starting Opening Day, you're going to get their ace," Shields said. "That's the way it shook down a couple times last year, and we had a couple of good battles. Hopefully, we can have another one on Opening Day."

Royals: Infante expected to be ready
Omar Infante is expected to start at second base on Opening Day after dealing with right elbow soreness stemming from a bone spur.

"He still feels it a little bit on occasion, but it goes away real quick," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "He may feel it on a throw, but it's gone by the time he's ready to make his next throw playing catch. He might feel it a little bit on a swing, on a scale of 1 to 10, a 2, but it goes away before he's ready to take his next swing, so that's good."

Tigers: New shortstops
Improved infield defense figures to be one of the main storylines of Detroit's 2014 season, even with slick-fielding shortstop Jose Iglesias out for a prolonged period with stress fractures in both legs.

The Tigers made two moves to shore up their shortstop position, acquiring 28-year-old Andrew Romine and 37-year-old Alex Gonzalez from the Angels and Orioles, respectively. Gonzalez might not be the defender he once was, but he and the Tigers are confident he and Romine can be adequate fill-ins.

"I feel like I can get to a lot of balls," Gonzalez said. "It's not the same range, but I feel like I can still catch the ball, make the play on the ball up the middle. I feel very good with my health."

Worth noting
• The Tigers have won three of the last four Opening Day matchups against the Royals, the most recent an 8-4 victory in 2010.

Probables
• Today: RHP James Shields vs. RHP Justin Verlander

• April 2: LHP Jason Vargas vs. RHP Max Scherzer

• April 3: RHP Yordano Ventura vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez

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