I watched the St. Louis Cardinals go into Camden Yards in early August and lose the first two games of a three-game set to Baltimore. The Orioles didn’t just beat the Cardinals, they eviscerated them.
Baltimore won the first game, 12-2, and hit six home runs.
The Orioles won Game 2, 10-3, and knocked out John Lackey early. They added three more home runs.
The Cardinals did win the third game of the series, 8-3, scoring a bunch of runs late. But the Orioles were the most impressive team I saw in the major leagues this season.
Yes, Baltimore had Manny Machado and Chris Davis in its lineup then. But both will be absent (Machado is hurt; Davis is suspended) when the best-of-seven American League Championship Series against Kansas City begins tonight in Baltimore.
The Orioles have everything: Starting pitching, defense, bullpen, power, manager. Well, almost everything. What Baltimore doesn’t have is team speed and it’s the one area the Royals will attempt to exploit in this series.
Kansas City has tremendous speed, especially now that designated-hitter Billy Butler is a threat to steal a base. Think he’ll go on the first pitch tonight after he reaches first base?
Seriously, the Royals are going to try and run Baltimore out of this series, and it’s the right strategy. Orioles catchers Nick Hundley (bad at throwing out base stealers) and Caleb Joseph (good at catching base thieves) will be in for a challenging series.
Baltimore, though, doesn’t need to rely on speed because the Orioles have muscle. They led MLB in home runs this season and even without Machado and Davis in the lineup, there are no soft spots.
Baltimore is one of the few teams that can match Kansas City’s bullpen and the Orioles probably have even more depth in the pen than KC, especially with hard-throwing rookie Kevin Gausman as the long man.
The Royals are going to need to hit some long balls in this series, like they did during an ALDS sweep over the Los Angeles Angels. Third baseman Mike Moustakas and first baseman Eric Hosmer went deep twice each in that series. Baltimore is able to score runs in bunches because of its power and the Royals can’t afford to get left in the dust.
If Kansas City can bring a track meet element to the series, the Orioles could be in trouble. Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Nori Aoki, Jarod Dyson and Terrance Gore will be attempting to fly.
Another key for the Royals is to score early against the Baltimore starters. The Orioles have a decent rotation, but it’s not great. Kansas City can’t afford to be behind in the middle innings of these games with that Baltimore bullpen ready to nail them down.
Left-hander Andrew Miller, acquired from Boston at the trade deadline this season, is a huge weapon for the Orioles. Darren O’Day and Zach Britton are nearly impossible to score against and Baltimore has other bullpen weapons, too. The team that can build a lead by the fifth or sixth innings of these games is going to be difficult to beat.
And that could become problematic for Kansas City, which likes to employ Dyson and Gore as pinch-runners late in close games. Because of the strength of the Baltimore pen, there could be spots earlier in games in which deploying those guys makes sense, even if it means taking a player like Butler out of a game earlier than normal.
Then there is the battle of the managers.
Baltimore’s Buck Showalter is universally heralded as a baseball genius. Kansas City’s Ned Yost is regarded by many as a buffoon who is just lucky to be along for the ride.
I suspect both descriptions are overblown, although Showalter undoubtedly whatever edge can be given to a manager in a postseason series.
The Royals are sending James Shields to the mound tonight to face Baltimore ace Chris Tillman. I’m looking forward to Game 2, when young Kansas City right-hander Yordano Ventura will face the Orioles’ power-laden lineup.
It’s important for the Royals to win one of the two games in Baltimore this weekend. But it won’t be easy against a team that is 50-31 at home and pitches much better at Camden (3.22 ERA to 3.66 on the road).
For Kansas City to win this series, the Royals have to hit homers while straying aggressive on the bases. They have to be able to score with Baltimore. And I’m not sure that’s going to happen.
Baltimore in six games.