Tonight marks the first game of the 2014 American League Championship series and what an interesting and fun match up we’ve had bestowed upon us.
The Baltimore Orioles have been in the playoffs just once in the past 17 seasons. They didn’t qualify once between 1997 and 2012, where they dropped a heartbreaking five-game set to the Yankees (or Raul Ibanez and 24 other guys, to be more exact) when they got there. Between 2001 and 2011, they failed to win more than 71 games nine times.
This year, it finally all clicked. The Orioles won 96 games, took the AL East by 12 games and outscored opponents by 112 runs. All this despite a series of setbacks that had the potential to derail the season, but somehow didn’t.
Hard-hitting catcher Matt Wieters was limited to just 26 games because of injuries.
Defensive wizard/wunderkind Manny Machado played 82 games due to multiple knee ailments.
Chris Davis, 2013 50 home run hitter and MVP candidate, sported a .196/.300/.400 batting average before failing a performance enhancing drug test. He was suspended and has yet to be added to the roster by the team.
Despite all this, the Orioles have had their most successful season since 1997 – the last time they appeared in the ALCS.
And yet, they’re not the more charming team in the series. It’s incredible, really.
As you’ve no doubt heard if you’re a baseball fan, it’s been a long, long time since the Royals have felt fine.
The Royals have existed for 45 years. 28 of those years have been spent in an unfairly and impossibly-long playoff drought. The fans have suffered, is what I’m saying.
Through the Royals ridiculously-competitive four wins to start the playoffs, much has been made of Ned Yost’s refusal to embrace sabermetric-friendly trends. The Royals don’t walk much, bunt constantly and rely on speed to win. A Kansas City championship would create a “advanced stats don’t work in the playoffs” narrative. But that’s not just exactly true (because every team has embraced this type of analysis in some way). But also because the playoffs are a small sample size and, in baseball, that creates a lot of wonky results. Kansas City could have easily lost each of those four games. The 2013 Red Sox showed how far breaks can take a decently-talented team.
Yost might be overmatched against Buck Showalter, but the Royals have a chance. James Shields and Yordano Ventura are better than any pitcher Baltimore can throw out. The outfield defense is barely to be believed and the speed on the base paths is difficult to deal with.
If Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas can continue to hit well (after a very good four games following a dismal regular season), that would be huge. The Royals had to rely on small ball this year because no one in the lineup hit for any power consistently. Hosmer and Moustakas both have that potential.
Also, I haven’t mentioned Salvador Perez, but he’s one of the 10 most underrated players in baseball.
The bullpen is lights out; if Yost can manage them well, it’s hard to get a run off the Royals.
They can win it all in spite of Yost.
Baltimore isn’t a powerhouse, but it isn’t a scrappy underdog either. The team is balanced – seventh in runs scored in the MLB, fifth in runs allowed. There is no ace, just four solid pitchers backed by one of the league’s best bullpens. Closer Zach Britton actually had a higher wins above replacement (WAR) than any of the starters, according to ESPN.
The lineup misses Davis, Machado and Wieters, but not too much. Nelson Cruz, signed to a cheap, one-year deal led the majors in home runs with 40. Steve Pearce finally came into his own this year at age 31 after years of bouncing around. Adam Jones was as good as ever while J.J. Hardy and Nick Markakis continued to play at an above-average level.
Small ball has been a lot of fun the past week or so, but the Orioles are just better. Baltimore should have the slight edge. Whoever pulls it out, they’ll have the full support of America in the World Series.