The race for the American League pennant is down to two of the most unlikely teams. On Friday, the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals will begin the best-of-seven American League Championship Series.
Prior to the start of the 2014 MLB season, it had been years since either team had experienced playoff success. The Orioles had reached the postseason just once in the last 17 years, and last won a playoff series in 1997. It had been 29 years between postseason appearances for the Royals, who just broke the longest playoff drought of the four major American sports.
Both teams enter the ALCS having had significant rest, following sweeps in their respective division series. With home-field advantage, the Orioles beat the Detroit Tigers in three games, outscoring their opponent 21-10. The Royals followed their extra-inning win in the wild-card game with two more extra-inning victories over the Los Angeles Angels, closing out the series at home.
Pitching is the biggest reason why Baltimore and Kansas City are meeting in the ALCS, considering they finished No.3 and No.4, respectively, in AL ERA. The Royals had a 2.93 ERA in their sweep, while the Orioles pitched to a 3.33 ERA.
James Shields is expected to get the ball for Kansas City in Game 1, already making his third start of the playoffs. He allowed just two runs in six innings in the ALDS clincher, but the right-hander hasn’t lived up to the nickname “Big Game James” in recent years. The Royals made a late-inning comeback to help him avoid a loss in the wild-card game, and his career playoff ERA is a pedestrian 4.96.
Chris Tillman doesn’t have the same postseason experience as Shields, but the 26-year-old could give Baltimore the advantage in Game 1. He’s expected to take the mound after allowing two runs in five innings in his playoff debut. Tillman was terrific in August and September, going 6-1 and recording a 2.14 ERA.
Jason Vargas, Yordano Ventura and Jeremy Guthrie should fill out the rest of the Royals rotation. Guthrie will likely get the call in Game 4 over Danny Duffy, who threw for a 2.53 ERA with a 1.11 WHIP in the regular season.
For the Orioles, Wei-Yin Chen looks to bounce back from a poor performance in Game 2. Bud Norris will get a start, having allowed no runs in four of his last six starts. Miguel Gonzalez will take the mound against Kansas City, after not getting a start in Baltimore’s sweep.
Nelson Cruz has a chance to be the offensive star in the ALCS. He led all hitters in the regular season with 40 home runs and finished fourth with 108 RBI. Cruz has continued that success in the playoffs, going 6-of-12 with two homers and five RBI.
Kansas City’s top hitter in the regular season, Alex Gordon, hit .300 and drove in four runs in the ALDS. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas both recorded two home runs against Los Angeles.
The Orioles finished sixth in MLB with 705 runs, while the Royals finished 14th with 651 runs. Baltimore’s a .422 slugging percentage was good for third in the Majors, compared to Kansas City’s .376 slugging percentage. The Royals were the only team in baseball to total less than 100 home runs.
The two teams don’t have much history against each other, playing different in divisions and constantly missing the postseason. It’s been nearly five months since they last met. In two regular-season series, Kansas City went 4-3 against Baltimore.
Entering the postseason, Bovada.lv named the Royals the biggest longshots to win the 2014 World Series at 18/1. Having beaten the Angels in three games with neither National League Division Series having been decided, they have the second-best odds at 15/4. The Orioles lead the way with 11/5 odds.
Starting Pitching: Edge to the Royals
Bullpen: Edge to the Orioles
Batting: Edge to the Orioles
Bench: Edge to the Royals
Manager: Edge to the Orioles
Betting Odds: Orioles are 2/3 favorites to win the series
Prediction: Orioles in 7