ALCS Preview - Kansas City Royals vs. Baltimore Orioles

Kansas City's improbable run almost ended in the wild card game against the Oakland Athletics, but the never-say-die Royals rallied to send that game into extra innings, before coming from behind once again to win the game in 12 innings.

Ned Yost's crew carried that momentum into the ALDS where they upended the AL's best team, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, in three straight games. The Royals needed more than nine innings to win the first two in Anaheim, before routing the Halos, 8-3, in Game 3 to advance in front of a wild Kauffman Stadium crowd.

"I'm more happy for the fans than anyone else, because they waited a long time to get to this point," owner David Glass said, drenched in champagne in the clubhouse celebration. "But listen, we're not at the end. We're at the beginning of something that could be really good."

No team signified small ball more than Kansas City, which won 89 games this season thanks in large part to its ability to play defense and manufacture runs. The Royals also led the AL with 153 stolen bases, but their 95 home runs were the fewest in baseball.

Kansas City, though, has enjoyed the luxury of the home run here in the postseason and won the first two games in Anaheim on the strength of two extra-inning homers and have hit just as many this postseason (4) as the Orioles, a team that blasted 116 more than them during the regular season.

"Well, you know, it was huge. Won us two games," Yost said of the power hitting after Sunday's clincher. "Coming into this game, we were hitting .162 as a team, they were hitting .141, but the difference were the two big home runs. That gave us the edge. Tonight the power was huge again."

If you are looking for a star on this Royals team, good luck.

Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, and Mike Moustakas get most of the attention, considering how highly regarded they were coming up through the organization, but Lorenzo Cain might be the most underrated player in the game.

Cain is as good of an outfielder as there is and he's not too shabby at the plate either, as he hit .301, drove in 53 runs and swiped 28 bases. Cain didn't offer much in terms of offense against the Angels, but flashed some serious leather in center field.

"I know now the whole world is starting to see what he can do," Hosmer said. "He's on the big stage now making the plays and doing it with the bat, also. That's something we've been seeing all year from him, from Gordo (Gordon), from (Jarrod) Dyson and all these guys out there. They've been really controlling that outfield. There's a lot of turf out there obviously to cover out there, and they make the stadium and the field look a lot shorter than it is."

Of course, you can't talk about the Royals and not mention their incredible bullpen triumvirate of closer Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis. The group combined for a 1.28 ERA and 258 strikeouts in 205 1/3 innings in the regular season.

It has been more of the same here in the postseason, as the Royals bullpen has accounted for three victories and has pitched to a 2.37 ERA. They have also fanned 21 batters in 19 innings.

The Royals also dodged a bullet with Herrera, who left Game 1 against the Angels with a forearm strain. An MRI, though, revealed no structural damage and he returned for the clincher.

If there is one perceived weakness within the Royals it could be their starting pitching. James Shields is the ace and will likely go in Game 1 against the O's.

Yost will likely then throw rookie Yordano Ventura and lefty Jason Vargas, who was tremendous in his Game 1 start versus the Angels. Yost could also give hard-throwing lefty Danny Duffy a start in this series.

Baltimore, meanwhile, beat the AL's last three Cy Young Award winners to sweep its way past the Detroit Tigers. While the Tigers' three aces weren't exactly lights out, the Orioles were able to batter the beleaguered Tigers' bullpen to the tune of 10 earned runs in just 4 2/3 innings.

"They've got a lot to be proud of," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who won his first postseason series. "It's a step. There's different steps during the season that you have to take and this is one of them. It's so hard against a team like Detroit that has a great pedigree and experience at (the postseason)."

Baltimore slugged its way to the postseason for the second time in three years thanks to its first AL East crown since 1997 after going 96-66. The win total was the most for an O's team since they accumulated 98 in the year of their last division title.

The O's had to overcome a pair of serious injuries along the way, as catcher Matt Wieters was lost for the season in June with an elbow injury, while promising third baseman Manny Machado again suffered a serious leg injury that required surgery in August.

Then as if that wasn't enough last year's home run champion Chris Davis was suspended for the use of amphetamines in September. Davis is eligible to return for Game 6 of this series, but will probably be left off the roster.

Regardless, it didn't slow the Orioles down from an offensive standpoint, as they hit a league high 211 dingers, with Nelson Cruz leading the way with an MLB-best 40.

Cruz continued to mash against the Tigers, going 6-for-12 with a pair of home runs and five RBI. Eight of Cruz's 16 postseason home runs have come against Detroit.

"He's been awesome all year," said Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis. "That's the main reason we got him. I played a lot of games against him and he's done a lot of damage against us. I'm just glad he's on our team doing the damage now."

Baltimore's rotation almost mirrors Kansas City with its lack of star power, but the group did have three 13-game winners (Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Chris Tillman) for the first time since '97, when Scott Erickson, Jimmy Key and Mike Mussina helped pitch the O's to their last division title.

Norris could be a player to watch this series. He threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings in the O's clincher over the Tigers and is 5-0 since the start of September.

Whatever perceived flaws Baltimore may have in the rotation, the O's more than make up for it with one of the better bullpens in baseball. Closer Zach Britton is as underrated as any pitcher in the game and Orioles relievers combined for a 3.10 ERA in the regular season, which was the third-lowest mark in the AL, and a 1.16 WHIP, tied for the second lowest.

Left-hander Andrew Miller and righty Darren O'Day will set the bridge to Britton. If the O's do get by, you can bet it's on the strength of their pitchers late in games.

Opponents batted .216 against the O's from the eighth inning on in the regular season.

PREDICTION: Baltimore's lineup wasn't shut down by the Tigers' aces, but still, most of its damage was done against a bullpen that was nowhere near the caliber of the one it will face this series. Still, I think the Orioles' offense will continue to hit Kansas City pitching, starting pitching that is. Kansas City may have all the momentum and as exciting as it is, it's hard to imagine the Royals being able to hang with the O's from a scoring standpoint.

BALTIMORE in SIX

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