The American League Championship Series between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Kansas City Royals is going to be must-see entertainment. Both teams are coming off very taxing and emotional five-game division series that left all of us baseball fans salivating at the thought of this matchup.
The Royals are proving that their run from 2014 wasn’t a fluke. Even without key names from last season’s World Series run, the Royals are back in the ALCS for the second straight year, and back with a better offense. The Royals pride themselves on fantastic defense, lead by center fielder Lorenzo Cain, stealing bases, a lights-out bullpen, and now — a deep lineup that can hurt opposing teams in multiple ways highlighted by Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales and Mike Moustakas.
Last year, the Royals were great at small ball — getting base hits, laying down bunts, moving runners over, winning close games. This year, they still execute with small ball, but they also have pop, hitting eight home runs against the Astros, led by Morales' three.
The Toronto Blue Jays know a thing or two about the long ball, they hit 120 more than any other team in the regular season. The home run kept the Jays in the ALDS against the Rangers, capped off by Jose Bautista’s monumental series-clinching three-run blast in Game 5. The Jays, led by Josh Donaldson at third base and Kevin Pillar in center, are very stout defensively, but after losing key reliever Brett Cecil, the bullpen could be a question that looms over the series. In addition to the loss of Cecil, uncertainty surrounding the starting rotation could also prove to be problematic against such a well-rounded Royals lineup.
Toronto vs. Kansas City
Friday, Oct. 16
Marco Estrada vs. Edinson Volquez
Saturday, Oct. 17
David Price vs. Yordano Ventura
Monday, Oct. 19
Johnny Cueto vs. Marcus Stroman
Tuesday, Oct. 20
Undecided vs. R.A. Dickey
Wednesday, Oct. 21
Undecided vs. Undecided
Friday, Oct. 23
Undecided vs. Undecided
Saturday, Oct. 24
Undecided vs. Undecided
Three Things to Watch
1. Is Johnny Cueto’s post-trade slump over?
Up until the third inning of Wednesday night’s ALDS Game 5 against Houston, Johnny Cueto had been to find his pitching flow since being traded to the Royals back in July. Maybe he left his moxie back in Cincinnati? Whatever the problem was, Cueto fixed it, at least when it mattered most.
After giving up a two-run shot in the second inning to Luis Valbuena, Cueto finally looked like the ace we were used to seeing in the National League. After the Valbuena blast, Cueto retired the next 19 Astros, putting his name next to Don Larsen in October history for most batters retired in a row by an AL pitcher in the postseason. Good company to be in, Johnny.
But Royals fans have to be asking themselves, is the Cueto from his last six innings the Cueto they are going to see in the ALCS? Or, is it going to be the Cueto who posted a 4-7 record, 4.76 ERA, and allowed almost five runs per nine innings since being traded to Kansas City? The Royals’ World Series hopes rest upon Cueto’s erratic arm.
2. Blue Jays' uncertain rotation
If it weren’t for Dallas Keuchel, Blue Jay’s ace David Price would be the front-runner for the AL Cy Young Award. You wouldn't know that from the way Price has pitched this or any other postseason in which he has appeared as a starting pitcher. In his last seven playoff appearances dating back to 2010, Price has a 1-6 record, a 5.48 ERA, as he has given up 27 earned runs in 44.1 innings pitched.
Price’s postseason woes continued when he was touched up for five runs in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Rangers when he gave up five earned runs in seven innings in a 5-3 loss. Things were complicated even further when Jays manager John Gibbons decided to use Price in relief in Game 4 with Toronto up 7-1 with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. Price proceeded to surrender three runs in three innings, and took himself out of the discussion for starting Game 5.
While Price’s postseason pitching struggles have been well documented, it is simply baffling as to why Gibbons called on Price, his best pitcher, in a game his team was ahead by six runs. The only somewhat logical answer is that Gibbons was trying to avoid using Price at all costs in Game 5, even out of the bullpen, instead giving the rookie Marcus Stroman the starting nod, seven months after suffering a torn ACL.
Whatever the issue is with Price, the Blue Jays need him in regular season form if they want to reach the Fall Classic. But now, since Stroman started on Wednesday and Price threw 50 pitches on Monday, how does Gibbons expect to use his two best pitchers if the series goes beyond four games? Stroman’s already been tabbed for Game 3 on Monday with Price taking the mound Saturday in Kansas City for Game 2. That leaves Game 1 honors to Marco Estrada, who was impressive in Game 2 of the ALDS, holding the Rangers to just one run in 6 1/3 innings to help Toronto even the series at a game apiece. The Blue Jays are set to turn to former NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey for Game 4 at home. What happens after that, should the series go beyond four games, is anyone's guess.
3. Blue-blooded rivals
In journalism school, one of the first things you are taught is that conflict drives the news. People are attracted to stories of strife, discord and dissension — the Blue Jays and Royals have all of that. These two teams don’t like each other, and that is going to make for great October theater.
In early August, after both teams restocked via the trade deadline, the Royals and Blue Jays met in a four-game series that saw Toronto win three straight on its way to reeling off 11 victories in a row. They Jays point to that series as the watershed moment in their 2015 season, the moment when they realized they had something special as it helped fuel a 42-18 finish to the regular season.
Old school, “respect the game” baseball fans find it easy to root against the brash and power-stroking Blue Jays. Their style of play represents their dugout demeanor with their bat flips, relishing home run trots, exotic hair cuts, flashy defense and general show of demonstrative emotion. Basically, the Blue Jays are really, really fun to watch.
The Royals are more blue-collar, relying on defense, stolen bases and great relief pitching. Kansas City was last in the league in strikeouts and toward the bottom in home runs. In the August meeting with the Jays, Royals pitcher Edinson Volquez called Jays third baseman and AL MVP candidate Josh Donaldson “a little baby.” Donaldson fired back, saying Volquez was, “some pretty good hitting.” Later, benches cleared several times as bean balls were exchanged and pitchers were tossed. Tweets were fired back and forth and the best rivalry of 2015 was born.
Lucky for us, we get watch the sum of this new-born rivalry unfold over the next seven games.
Both teams showed their resiliency in their respective division series, fighting back from series and game deficits multiple times, both ending in dramatic, winner-take-all Game 5s.
So much of this series rests on both team’s respective starting pitching. I give a slight edge there to the Royals only because of the uncertainty with the Jays' rotation (thanks to their manager) and the Kansas City bullpen’s ability to shut teams down with arms like Kelvin Herrera and lights-out closer Wade Davis.
That being said... we all know the home run is the great equalizer, and the Blue Jays swing the bat harder than any other team in baseball. After the Royals surrendered 11 long balls against the Astros in the ALDS, it’s hard to pull against such a loaded Toronto lineup. I hope we see plenty of epic bat flips.
Blue Jays in 7 Games
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. An avid baseball fan, Rose also takes time to do some play-by-play work for the radio broadcasts of Middle Tennessee State Blue Raider baseball games. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.