Royals-Twins Preview

The Kansas City Royals have built a 1 1/2-game lead in the AL Central and will get a chance to extend it against a struggling young arm for a last-place team.

The Royals will try for an eighth straight series win Monday night when they conclude a four-game set in Minnesota.

Sunday’s 12-6 win set the Royals (68-55) up for another series win and gave them an MLB-best 20-5 record since July 22. They haven’t been in first place this late in a season since 2003.

Josh Willingham hit his first home run with Kansas City, and it came against the club that traded him a week ago.

Alex Gordon had a home run, triple, three runs scored and two RBIs. The left fielder is 6 for 11 in the series and is batting .350 over his last 15 games at Target Field.

The Royals also continued to get offense from Billy Butler, who went 3 for 5 with an RBI to bump his season average to .280 for the first time since June 28. He’s batting .393 in his last 14 games, but he’s got just a .203 average against Minnesota this season.

The Twins (55-67) have a hot-hitting first baseman of their own. Joe Mauer had a 16-game hitting streak snapped Saturday, but he bounced back by going 1 for 2 with a home run and two walks Sunday. He’s batting .353 over 18 games and has homered twice in his last four after leaving the yard just twice in his first 78.

Kansas City now turns to Jason Vargas, who should be riding plenty of confidence.

Vargas (9-5, 3.27 ERA) threw a three-hit shutout his last time out for arguably the best outing of his career. The left-hander didn’t walk a batter and struck out four in Wednesday’s 3-0 home win over Oakland, his third start since undergoing an appendectomy.

"He got back to being who he was. We thought it would take him two starts before he got sharp again and, luckily, it proved to be right," Royals manager Ned Yost told MLB’s official website. "He was just dynamic, he was in complete control, he was commanding both sides of the plate. His changeup was unbelievable."

Things look promising for a strong follow-up effort. Vargas is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts against the Twins this season and 4-2 with a 2.13 ERA in 10 road starts, two of which have come in Minnesota.

Left-handed hitters Mauer (10 for 24) and Chris Parmelee (7 for 13) have had success against Vargas, but righties Trevor Plouffe (4 for 22) and Kurt Suzuki (6 for 32) haven’t.

The Twins’ Trevor May, meanwhile, is still trying to prove he belongs at the big league level. In two outings, May (0-1, 12.46) hasn’t been able to find the strike zone, issuing nine walks in 4 1-3 innings over one start and a relief effort.

"He’s been like a raging bull out there," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We gotta calm him down right now."

After a disastrous first start Aug. 9, he allowed three runs – two earned – and three hits with two walks in 2 1-3 innings of relief in Tuesday’s 10-4 loss in Houston.

"It was better than the first time, but I’ve still got a long way to go," May said. "Things just didn’t go my way."