8:07 PM EST, TBS – Line: Baltimore -129
Everything that was once old is now new again, as a pair of the American League’s classic franchises meet in the 2014 ALCS, with the Baltimore Orioles hosting Kansas City Royals in Game One tonight at Camden Yards. It’s been a very long wait for the Royals (89-73), who are making the most of their first voyage into the postseason since 1985, which was also the last time the franchise won a World Series Championship. After finishing second in the American League Central, Ned Yost’s club hosted the Athletics in the Wild Card Playoff, rallying back on several occasions to outlast the A’s in twelve innings. From there they rode a wave a momentum into Anaheim, where they shocked the top-seeded Angels, sweeping them in three successive games. As has been the case all season long, Kansas City ousted their heavily-favored adversaries with a wildly successful small-ball approach; despite tagging the fewest home runs in the Majors (95), they led the American League in Stolen Bases (153) and fewest Strikeouts (985), while third in Hits (1,456), fourth in Doubles (286), and fifth in Triples (29), while ranking second overall Batting Average (.263). However, it’s not like these guys can’t go yard when they have to; in each of the first two games of the Division Series in Anaheim they were able to outlast their hosts in eleven innings, and in each instance the earned victory with a late go-ahead homer. In Game One it was Mike Moustakas’ 374-footer to Right Field that gave them a 3-2 lead, and in Game Two it was Eric Hosmer’s two-run shot that put that respective contest out of reach at 4-1. Finally, with their opponent looking broken as they entered Kauffman Stadium, the Royals finished them off 8-3 in the Finale; this time both Hosmer and Moustakas went yard, as James Shields and Co. kept the visitors from reaching home plate.
Speaking of James “Big Game” Shields (14-8, 3.21 ERA), the big right-hander will be called upon once more to validate his moniker, as he prepares to face a foe that he is all too familiar with. Of course, Shields spent seven years as a member of the Rays, who count the Orioles among their rivals in the American League East. Over his nine-year career, the veteran has taken the mound against Baltimore 26 times, earning an 11-7 record with a 3.52 ERA, racking up 133 strikeouts opposed to issuing 46 walks in 176.1 innings of work, while posting a WHIP of 1.214. However, he has been abused for eighteen home runs in those meetings, with nine coming at long-ball-friendly Camden Yards. In regards to that ballpark in particular, Shields 7-2 lifetime there, amassing a 3.81 ERA in thirteen career starts there. The 32-year old will be heading to the bump for the third time in these Playoffs, putting together some stellar performances in the Wild Card Playoff and the ALDS. Against the Athletics, Shields lasted five innings, yielding four runs on five hits, with six strikeouts and a pair of walks, earning a no-decision as his team trailed at the time of his exit. He was much better against the Angels, limiting their powerful lineup to just a pair of runs on six hits over six innings of labor, with half-a-dozen strikeouts and two walks. With that said, there is a silver lining here that Yost must be wary of, particularly against Baltimore tonight; Shields has served up three homers in the postseason thus far, bringing his total to seven over eight career starts in October.
Meanwhile, the Orioles too have had to wait quite a while to advance to this point, though it hasn’t been nearly as long as their opponent tonight. Baltimore (96-66) hasn’t made it to the American League Championship Series since 1997, and the last time they represented the AL in the World Series was way back in 1983. Buck Showalter and Dan DuQuette have done a masterful job of evolving a down-trodden franchise into one of the best in the Majors, choosing to slowly develop their in-house talent over spending big in Free Agency. This is particularly evident with their depth; Many thought that the O’s would come back to Earth once they lost Third-baseman Manny Machado and Catcher Matt Wieters to season-ending injuries, and reigning home run king Chris Davis to a 25-game suspension due to amphetamines. After all, this is a team that lives off of their power, and subtracting these three guys from the batting order threatened to create a power outage; Baltimore led the Majors with 211 home runs, and finished second in Slugging Percentage (.422), with seven different players belting a dozen or more homers, with that aforementioned trio accounting for 43 of that total. Nonetheless, whomever Showalter has plugged into the lineup has enjoyed success, as this prolific offense hasn’t missed a beat.
Utility Man Steve Pearce has been used all over the field, predominantly in the Outfield, but most recently at First Base in place of the suspended Davis. The seven-year veteran has experienced a career season, posting lifetime-highs in Games (102), At-Bats (338), Hits (99), Doubles (26), Home Runs (21), RBIs (49), On-Base Percentage (.373), and Slugging Percentage (.556). Ditto for Nelson Cruz, who was clearly the offseason acquisition of the year; after serving a 50-game suspension that caused him to miss the Rangers’ Playoff run last season, Cruz entered Free Agency as a pariah, and was purchased by the Orioles for a meager sum of $8 million for one season. Now we can debate the merits of describing $8 million as “meager” all day, but considering the numbers that the veteran outfielder has posted, his acquisition should be considered grand larceny. During the Regular Season, Cruz led the Majors with career-high 40 home runs, while also racking up 166 hits, scoring 87 runs, pelting 32 doubles, and driving in 108 RBIs, all the while posting a batting average of .271, a slugging percentage of .525, and an on-base percentage of .333. With that said, it’s been his work in the Playoffs that has really made his investment pay dividends; Cruz jacked a pair of homers in the ALDS against the Tigers, bringing his lifetime total in October up to sixteen, tying him with the legendary Babe Ruth. His teammates promptly followed suit in what was one of the most impressive displays of power in Playoff History, particularly given the status of their opponents. Against Detroit’s murderer’s row of Cy Young-winners, Showalter’s lineup pummeled their adversaries, totaling 21 runs on 26 hits, including four home runs. We’ll see if they can continue their power trip against the Royals, who they have batted just .225 against with four homers over seven games.