If anyone reading this picked the Baltimore Orioles and the Kansas City Royals as the American League finalists for 2014 back in spring training, we just don't believe you.
Even as the playoffs began less than a week ago, very few — if any — would have had this matchup in the AL Championship Series when filling out the proverbial postseason bracket. Yes, the Orioles won their first AL East title since the 1990s, and yes, the Royals were bound for October for the first time in three decades, but even the most optimistic optimist probably would have had the other three AL playoff teams here first.
Baltimore swept the Detroit Tigers, participants in the last three straight AL Championship Series, while Kansas City eliminated the Los Angeles Angels, the team with the best regular season record in baseball this year, also in three straight.
It's hard to argue with sweeps, but both series actually were much closer than they looked.
Orioles Never Flinched at Tigers Pitching
Much was made of both the Detroit Tigers and the Oakland Athletics — and their pitching staffs — all summer, but both came up empty in the first week of the postseason. Specifically, Detroit sent the last three AL Cy Young Award winners to the mound against Baltimore, and the Tigers didn't get a single win out of the trio.
That's shocking, in truth, but the Orioles hitters did what they needed to do against quality arms: hang in there. In Game One, Baltimore did just enough against Max Scherzer to get the lead, and then the Orioles stuck it to a suspect Tigers bullpen. When you score eight runs in the eighth inning, it's a good day.
Against Justin Verlander in Game Two, the Baltimore lineup couldn't get the lead, but they scored enough to stay close into the late innings. And once again, the Tigers bullpen collapsed in the eighth inning and blew the lead.
Orioles Simply Had Some Good Fortune
vIn Sunday's finale, unheralded Bud Norris out-dueled David Price in a hard-fought, 2-1 victory.
Each of these games was within three runs in the eighth inning. Baltimore just prevailed each time, and sometimes you need that kind of good fortune in the postseason to advance. The Orioles earned their sweep, but it wasn't an easy one, that's for sure.
Royals Shut Down High-Flying Angels Offense
We all knew the Los Angeles Angels starting pitching wasn't healthy for the postseason, but the highest-scoring team in baseball surely would get enough runs to hand leads over to the stellar bullpen.
But Kansas City never let the Angels get those leads. In fact, L.A. took one lead in this entire series: the first inning of Game Three. The Angels held that lead for less than an inning, as the Royals scored three runs to answer in the bottom of the inning and never looked back.
Royals Bats Did the Talking
Like Baltimore, the Kansas City hitters won this series mostly against the L.A. bullpen — one that was pretty darn good for the second half of the season. With two extra-inning home runs from a team that doesn't hit the long ball, and the Royals were on their way to a surprising sweep.
Overlooking the wild-card game against Oakland, the Royals pitching was lights out against the Angels. We knew it was a good staff, but we didn't know it was that good.
Looking Ahead to the ALCS
The Orioles host Game One against the Royals on Friday, and the pitching matchups are not available yet. Each team will have four days of rest to reset its rotation, however, expect Chris Tillman for Baltimore and James Shields again for the Royals, making his third postseason start already. Shields didn't pitch well against the A's in the wild-card game, but he did just fine against the Angels in Game Three.
The Royals have the pitching edge, overall. And the Orioles will be without slugging Chris Davis for at least five more games, if the team decides they want him back after a drug suspension.
The seven-game series will move to Kansas City for Games Three, Four and Five, and expect the Royals to win it at home in Game Five. It's just too hard to pick against them right now, even if the Orioles have their own momentum going.
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