After years of disappointment, the Houston Astros have become the American League's "Cinderella story." On Thursday night at Kauffman Stadium, they will begin a five-game American League Division Series against last year's surprise team, the Kansas City Royals.
The Astros are brimming with confidence after easily dropping the New York Yankees in Tuesday’s one-game wild card, 3-0. It marked the Astros' first postseason victory since 2005.
The Royals will have three days of rest in preparation for their AL title defense. Ned Yost's squad is coming off a 95-win season, and their first division title in 30 years.
According to VegasInsider, the Royals enter the opening matchup as -135 favorites but they fully understand how quickly a wild-card victory can build momentum toward a deep postseason run. Kansas City’s seemingly improbable blitz to Game 7 of the World Series last season started with a dramatic 9-8 victory over Oakland in the wild-card game.
Here’s a breakdown of each side’s pitching and hitting, as well as a series prediction.
Though both squads finished in the top seven in runs scored across the majors, their pitching has been even more dominate. Houston’s staff led the AL with a 3.57 team ERA and finished second with 13 shutouts, but Kansas City was right behind with the AL’s No. 3 ERA of 3.73.
The Royals named Yordano Ventura as Game 1’s starter with Johnny Cueto next up for Game 2. Ventura and probable Game 3 starter Edinson Volquez each led K.C.’s staff with 13 wins apiece this season, while Cueto remains a question mark after a 4-7 record and 4.76 ERA over 13 starts since the Royals acquired him from Cincinnati at the trade deadline in July.
Collin McHugh seems the likely Game 1 starter for the Astros. His 19-7 record over 32 starts this season was one-win shy of Cy Young candidate Kuechel, and McHugh’s stuff will be very unfamiliar to a Royals lineup that never faced him in the regular season.
Each side has a top notch bullpen, but in juxtaposition, the Royals did have the most dominate relievers in the league. Greg Holland and Wade Davis combined for 49 of K.C.’s 56 saves this season, the second-highest in the AL, and as a unit the bullpen’s totaled a 2.72 ERA, but Holland was lost to a season-ending elbow injury.
Houston manager A.J. Hinch rolls out righty closer Luke Gregerson, who led the Astros pen with 31 saves, and picked up the first postseason save of his career against New York. Gregerson struck out two batters and seven of his eight pitches were strikes.
A mere five runs separated Houston’s No. 6 offense from Kansas City’s No. 7, but the Astros have managed to combine speed and power while the Royals continue to rely on timely hitting and smart base-running.
Carrying over most of last year’s lineup, the Royals were once again among the AL’s leaders in stolen bases and near the bottom in home runs. But with outfielder Lorenzo Cain, first baseman Eric Hosmer, and designated hitter Kendrys Morales hitting at or near. 300, the Royals were second in the AL with a .269 team batting average.
Yet, the Astros stole more bases than any other AL club this season (121) and ripped 230 home runs, only two back of World Series-favorite Toronto and its league-best offense. DH Evan Gattis topped Houston with 27 home runs, with four others hitting more than 20, and second baseman Jose Altuve’s collected 293 total bases and a team-high .313 average.
Prediction: With very few holes on either side’s rotation or lineup, this series could easily go the full five games. The Royals have the experience edge, but the Astros have more firepower and can get to K.C.’s starters before Holland and Davis enter in the later innings. Houston in 5.
[Correction:] The original version of this article stated Greg Holland was part of the Royals bullpen heading into the playoffs. However, he suffered a season-ending elbow injury in September. The correction is now reflected in the article.