Welcome back after a very exciting set of Division Series games to what is now the final step before the World Series. And while we catch our collective breath from a wild couple of ALDS Game 5´s, it is time to look at how the ALCS should look like starting this Friday. After all, both teams just completed epic, memorable comebacks only to arrive at this stage.
First, we have the Blue Jays, who became just the third team in MLB history to come back from a 0-2 deficit after losing two games at home on a best-of-5 series. This included a bizarre Game 5 in which the seventh inning became a sideshow on its own, the rulebook was analyzed like never before, the Rangers imploded (as they tend to do), and Jose Bautista settled it all with a monster homer and an even bigger bat flip. The Jays now have a chance to reach the franchise´s first World Series since 1993, and enter the ALCS as slight favorites.
On the other hand, the Royals had a less dramatic Game 5 of their own, as they won by 5 runs in the end following Kendrys Morales´ exclamation-point homer, and 22 consecutive batters retired by Johnny Cueto and Wade Davis. However, this was only possible by a shocking turnaround in Game 4, where the Astros held a 4-run lead entering the eighth inning and seemed all but certain to advance. As Kansas City took the lead and forced a Game 5, the Royals stayed calm and now advance to their second consecutive ALCS. The Royals have built a new reputation as the ultimate comeback team, having won all 3 of their games against Houston despite the Astros starting with the lead in all of them.
As the two best teams in the American League get ready to face off for a trip to the World Series, which includes home-field advantage for the winner, we take a look at some of the most important factors to consider in the series, how the matchups look, and make a pick in the end.
By trusting in Marcus Stroman to start Game 5 of the ALDS, the Blue Jays saved their biggest ace, David Price, to start Game 1 of the ALCS. However, that always comes with a caveat, as Price has continued his playoff woes and was Toronto´s worst pitcher against the Rangers. Having now pitched in 50 postseason innings, Price owns a 5.04 ERA (7.20 in the ALDS) and has never won as a starter. Still, his track record suggests that he should be able to get things back on track sooner than later, as he would be expected to pitch Game 1, Game 4, and a potential Game 7. In five career starts versus the Royals, the lefty has gone 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA, including a 0.90 ERA at Kauffman Stadium.
As for the rest of the rotation, the Blue Jays are likely to go with season savior Marco Estrada (who won Game 3 of the ALDS in Arlington) for Game 2, and save up a rested Marcus Stroman for Game 3 back in Toronto. This would leave RA Dickey, who pitched well in Game 4 of the ALDS, as the potential swingman that can come in for long relief or to face a specific hitter. This flexibility gives manager John Gibbons a good chance to mix and match accordingly for every matchup. Toronto´s bullpen performed admirably against the Rangers, with closer Roberto Osuna pitching 5.2 perfect innings with six strikeouts over 4 games, and closing out Game 5 in impressive fashion. By the way, Osuna is the youngest active player in all of MLB.
The Royals don´t seem to have such a clear view of their rotation entering the ALCS. In fact, their only quality start of the ALDS came in Game 5 when Johnny Cueto returned to vintage form and delivered a clutch performance. However, that also means that Cueto will be available to start until Game 3 as the series shifts to Toronto. In 7 road starts with Kansas City, Cueto went 1-4 with a 4.98 ERA, and allowed 3 runs over 6 innings in his only start against the Blue Jays.
Ned Yost and his staff have to decide on how the rest of the rotation will look. The Royals only deployed three starters over their 5 games against Houston, but that was mostly a product of Game 1 hurler Yordano Ventura only going two innings in Game 1. It is probable that Ventura gets the nod to start the series and then be followed by Edinson Volquez in Game 2. Kansas can then use a spot start from Chris Young following Cueto´s first appearance, knowing that their biggest strength remains in their untouchable bullpen.
The Royals again took advantage of their deep relief corps in the ALDS, as two games were won by the bullpen that hasn´t really missed closer Greg Holland. With the role now belonging to Wade Davis, the team may be even a bit better, as Davis threatens to become a decent facsimile of Mariano Rivera. The righty has allowed only one run over 20.2 playoff innings as a reliever, and is coming off back-to-back seasons of an ERA below 1.
The biggest contrast between the two teams will show up in how they approach hitting. On one hand, we have the mighty and powerful Blue Jays, who led the league in runs, slugging, and homers, and flexed their muscles in the ALDS. The Jays homered at least once in every game, and collected a total of 8 homers over the whole series, with the likes of Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Troy Tulowitzki delivering big blasts.
On the other hand, the Royals are built on a patient approach at the plate that sees them strike out rarely and make a ton of contact. Despite this reputation, the Royals scored 25 runs in the ALDS, also connecting 8 homers and with a big power threat came from Kendrys Morales, who hit three, and Salvador Perez, who blasted two long balls. This looks eerily similar to what the Royals did a year ago, when they suddenly started hitting clutch homeruns in the postseason as a way to complement what they usually do on offense.
Defense, Managers, and Intangibles
Even as the Royals have been the best defensive club in baseball for a while, the Blue Jays shouldn´t lag that far behind. This series is bound to showcase two elite defensive center fielders in Lorenzo Cain and Kevin Pillar, while we get to watch Jose Bautista shooting lasers from right field, Alex Gordon chasing balls in left, and two of the game´s best catchers in Salvador Perez and Russell Martin. The contrast from a pitcher´s park in Kansas City to a hitter’s haven in Toronto will be interesting to observe, as well.
From a managerial standpoint, both John Gibbons and Ned Yost are highly regarded for what they´ve been able to accomplish over the past few seasons. The fact that we are seeing the two best teams in the AL at this stage is certainly not a coincidence, as both managers have been able to maximize the talent that´s been handed to them, and none of them seem liable to make a huge blunder in lineup construction or bullpen management over the ALCS.
Finally, it will also be riveting to see how both fan bases respond to this matchup. To start, we have Kauffman Stadium and the Kansas fans who want to see another World Series. The people at Toronto have been waiting for this for more than two decades, and this may be Toronto´s best chance to bring a title back to Canada. If the recent crowds are any indication is that both cities care deeply for their teams, and the anxiety in both ballparks will be high from the first pitch to the last.
Both teams have enough momentum to carry all the way to the World Series, so it might just as well come down to who has the most talented roster. As much as the Royals have accomplished over the past two seasons, their rotation looks a bit shaky even with a revamped Cueto. While their bullpen can bail them out more often than not, Toronto has a lineup that goes almost 9-deep in quality hitters who can wear any staff down. And as they showed against Texas, they are relentless.
While the series is bound to be full of close games, I see the Blue Jays dominating mostly throughout and David Price finally getting rid of the playoff yips. Prepare to watch innumerable replays of Joey Bats and Joe Carter, as the Jays are heading to the World Series.
Blue Jays in 6.