The Kansas City Royals know exactly how the Houston Astros feel right now. Last year, the Royals were the Astros of this year — sort of. In 2014 the Royals reached their full potential and earned a wild card berth before running roughshod through the postseason, winning the American League pennant, but ultimately falling in Game 7 of the World Series against Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants.
The 2014 Royals were built on defense, amazing pitching, and timely hitting. The current Royals are built in the same mold as last year, only better, as the team’s offense has improved thanks to a very well-rounded lineup.
The 2015 Astros are about going deep and playing fast. Coming off four straight seasons of at least 90 losses, including three consecutive years of 100-plus defeats, the Astros were supposed to be a couple years away from contending. Apparently they didn't get the memo in Houston, as the Astros spent 127 consecutive days in first place in the AL West before sliding into the second wild card spot with 86 wins.
Houston vs. Kansas City
Thursday, Oct. 8
Collin McHugh vs. Yordano Ventura
Friday, Oct. 9
Scott Kazmir vs. Johnny Cueto
Sunday, Oct. 11
Edinson Volquez vs. Dallas Keuchel
Monday, Oct. 12
Undecided vs. Undecided
Wednesday, Oct. 14
Undecided vs. Undecided
Three Things to Watch
1. Small Ball vs. The Long Ball
As mentioned, these two teams are complete opposites when it comes to offense. The Astros are a free-swinging group of youngsters ahead of their time. The Royals, while still mostly young, are a more veteran group with a definitive offensive plan of attack.
The Astros hit the second-most home runs in baseball behind the Blue Jays with 230 long balls. Houston has five players that hit at least 20 home runs this season, but also have seven players that struck out at least 100 times, ranking second in the majors in whiffs behind only the Cubs with 1,392 strikeouts.
The Royals on the other hand, are more disciplined at the plate, ranking last in baseball in total strikeouts and second in team batting average (.269). The Royals lack a lot of power in their lineup, hitting almost a hundred fewer home runs than their Astro counterparts.
Anything can happen in a five-game series, and as the Royals proved in last year’s postseason run, the long ball is the great equalizer in the game.
2. X-Factor: Astros OF George Springer
After making a name for himself in 2014 with 20 home runs in just 78 games, ’15 was supposed to be the year the Astros' Springer established himself as a star. Springer missed 60 games this season with injuries, but when he suited up, he showed great improvement both offensively and defensively.
He raised his ’14 batting average 45 points to .276 with an .826 OPS all while becoming a plus-defender in right field. The most impressive development in Springers’s game was his plate discipline. Springer stuck out 114 times in just 345 plate appearances last season. Springer had 105 more plate appearances this season and five fewer strikeouts in 24 more games. While the strikeout number is still high, it shows the level of dedication Springer is willing to put forth in order to reach his potential.
The last week, Springer has been raking, hitting .458/.519/.708 with a 1.227 OPS in 27 plate appearances. If Springer can keep his hot bat going during the ALDS, the Astros have to like their chances.
3. Bullpen Keys
Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera were absolutely unbelievable last postseason, essentially taking away the final three innings from opposing offenses. Holland was closer, while the eighth inning belonged to Davis, and the seventh to Herrera.
Now, Holland is out after undergoing Tommy John surgery. In stepped Davis as the closer, and the Royals haven’t skipped a beat. Davis somehow one-upped himself this season with a 0.94 ERA after a sterling 1.00 ERA in ’14. Herrera now takes over the eighth and fellow reliever Ryan Madson now rules the seventh. While Herrera may be the more well-known flame-thrower, Madson is the hurler that the Astros should fear most. Madison has put up fantastic numbers this season with a 2.13 ERA, 3.09 FIP, .0963 WHIP, while surrendering less runs and walks than Herrera.
Royals' starting pitching has been somewhat suspect and lacking the ace that the Astros have in Dallas Kuechel. The sooner that Kansas City skipper Ned Yost can get his relievers in the game, the better the chances the Royals head back to the ALCS.
The Astros were a great story for the first three quarters of the season before fading down the stretch. This series has the potential to be the best of any postseason matchup this October with the fantastic contrast in style. That being said, I love that the Royals started the season with the pedal on the floor and haven’t let up since last season heartbreaking World Series loss.
Prediction: Royals in 4 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.