Thursday, October 9, 2014

Championship Series Preview

Kansas City Royals vs. Baltimore Orioles

Series Start: Friday, October 10th
Homefield Advantage: Orioles
Previous Playoff Meetings: None
2014 Head to Head Record: KC 4-3

On Sunday, both the Orioles and Royals swept their Division Series against higher priced and favored teams. For both the Tigers and Angels, a combination of poor bullpen performance and lack of timely hitting did them in. Baltimore was able to beat three straight Cy Young winners, winning against Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and David Price. Kansas City's pitching was able to shut down the Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and the AL best Angel offense.

I doubt anybody predicted these two teams to be the final two teams standing in the American League this year. Prior to this season, the Royals went 29 years without making the postseason, and the Orioles had only made the playoffs once this century. Whoever wins will be breaking a long World Series drought. Baltimore hasn't made the World Series since 1983, which was Cal Ripken Jr.'s second full season. Kansas City hasn't been to the World Series since 1985, when George Brett was still playing.

Buck Showalter has been a manager for 16 seasons with 4 different teams, yet this is the first time his team advanced to the LCS. Showalter's 1995 Yankees, 1999 Diamondbacks, and 2012 Orioles all lost in the Division Series. Showalter has been fired by the Yankees, D-Backs, and Rangers, but he left all three of those teams better off than we he took over. The Yankees and D-Backs both won the World Series the season after he left, and the Rangers made the World Series twice after he left. He turned all three of those teams around, and has done the same with the Orioles. Showalter has always been thought of as a good manager, and he is now looking to finally make the World Series himself.

For Ned Yost, it has also been a long journey. Like Showalter, he has been a longtime baseball man. Yost was on Bobby Cox's coaching staff during their stretch of greatness in the 1990's. As a manager, Yost has mostly managed bad Brewers and Royals teams. Yost had never managed a team to the postseason before this year. He was fired with 12 games left to go in 2008, which the Brewers won the wild card. He took over the Royals job in 2010, and has endured some criticism. However, he has had much better luck this season with the Royals. This young Royals team is 4-0 in the 2014 playoffs, and just swept the Angels, who had the league's best regular season record.

A key for both of these teams has been their bullpens. The Royals have rode the three player combo of Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera this season to shut down teams in the late innings. Herrera had a forearm flexor strain in the ALDS, but should be fine for the ALCS. Rookie lefty Brandon Finnegan has also been a major contributor this postseason. Finnegan was drafted this year, and is looking to become the first player to pitch in the College World Series and the MLB World Series in the same year.

The Orioles bullpen isn't as well known, but has been lights out in the postseason. Baltimore had a chance to acquire a name closer this past offseason (nearly signing Grant Balfour), but declined too. Tommy Hunter started off as the team's closer, but was displaced by Zack Britton early on. Britton isn't a hard thrower, but saved 37 games with a sub-2.00 ERA. Hunter and Darren O'Day have pitched well in the setup role. The Orioles made a low key, but very important move trading for lefty Andrew Miller at the deadline this July. Miller has been Showalter's go to reliever in high leverage situations.

Offensively, the Royals have a 1980's type offense that relies on speed. Jarrod Dyson, Nori Aoki, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, and Alex Gordon are all threats on the basepaths. The team lacks power, with Gordon and Salvador Perez being their top home run hitters. The Royals rebuilding plan had Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas as centerpieces of their rebuilding effort. Both players have flashed potential, but haven't lived up to expectations. However, both players came up big in the ALDS, hitting two home runs each.

The Orioles still have a very potent offense, even with the absence of Matt Wieters, Manny Machado, and Chris Davis. They still have a deep lineup, led by Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz. Cruz led the majors with 40 homer runs, and Baltimore hit the most as a team in the majors. The Orioles don't have a lot of patient hitters, but Nick Markakis is the most selective hitter and the team's table setter. There have been many unsung players step up for the Orioles this year, and Stephen Pearce is the perfect example of that. Pearce hit 21 homers in 339 at bats, and has filled in at first in Davis' absence. GM Dan Duquette has even said Pearce has saved the Orioles season.

Prediction: Royals in 7

San Francisco Giants vs. St. Louis Cardinals

Series Start: Saturday, October 11th
Homefield Advantage: Cardinals
Previous Playoff Meetings: 1987, 2002, 2012
2014 Head to Head Record: Giants 4-3

Unlike the American League, the National League's final two teams are postseason veterans. Since the 2010 season, the Cardinals and the Giants have dominated the National League. The Giants won the NL pennant in 2010 and 2012, while the Cardinals won it in 2011 and 2013. Out of 10 possible chances, these two teams have 7 total NLCS appearances since 2010. The 2012 NLCS was a hard fought affair in which the Giants won in 7 games. The Cardinals had a 3-1 lead, but were unable to win another game.

The Cardinals are in the NLCS for the fourth straight season, the longest streak since the Atlanta Braves from 1995-99. The road to the NLCS has been much tougher for Mike Matheny's squad than it was last year. The Redbirds offense slipped from top in the NL to ninth this year. GM John Mozeliak shook up the roster in July, most notably trading away Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to Boston for John Lackey. Lackey was acquired for his big game reputation, and he came through in Game 3. Even more impressively, the Cardinals beat Clayton Kershaw twice in the NLDS. Rookie lefty Marco Gonzales got the win both times in relief.

The Giants road to the NLCS has also been longer than it was in 2010 and 2012. They lost the division to the Dodgers, and had to travel to Pittsburgh for the wild card game. Madison Bumgarner shut Pittsburgh out in a 8-0 win. Then the Giants had to travel to Washington to face the team with the best record in the National League. San Francisco won both games in D.C., including a 18 inning affair in Game 2. The Giants are seeking a shot to win their third World Series in the last five years.

Both of these teams find a way to get it done, and grind out victories in the postseason. Neither team was favored in their Division Series matchup, but both teams won. The Nationals and Dodgers were expected by many to make a run at the championship. Neither of those teams have the playoff experience or the will to win in October that the Giants or Cardinals do.

Two rookie second baseman have made a big impact for both of these clubs. The Giants used 8 different players at second base until settling on rookie Joe Panik. Marco Scutaro has been hurt almost all season, and was limited to only 3 games. Panik solidified second base, and hit .305 in 78 games. The lefty hitting Panik doesn't hit for much power, but is much better than the likes of Brandon Hicks or Dan Uggla were. Kolten Wong got off to a slow start, was sent to the minors, and had a stint on the disabled list before the All Star break. Despite that, Wong led NL rookies with 12 home runs this year. Wong played excellent defense and stole 20 bases this year, which was the most since Cesar Izturis stole 24 in 2008.

In 2014, the Cardinals were dead last in the NL in home runs. Only Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta hit over 20 this season. Wong and Matt Adams were the only other players in double digits. However, St. Louis hit 7 home runs against the Dodgers in the Division Series. Matt Carpenter hit 3 homers in that series, and would of been the MVP of the series if such a award existed. The 7th inning comeback in Game 1 against Kershaw set the tone for the rest of the series. The Cardinals lost Game 2, but scored the game winning runs in the 7th inning in both Games 3 and 4.

Injuries have hit the Giants hard this year. They are playing in the postseason without Scutaro, Angel Pagan, and Matt Cain. Brandon Belt missed a big chunk of the season this year as well. Belt has came back in time for the postseason, and hit the game winning home run in the Game 2 of the NLDS vs. Washington.  Michael Morse has been out with an oblique injury since August 31st, and missed the Division Series. Giants manager Bruce Bochy has said that Morse will likely be added to the NLCS roster, giving the Giants at least a power bat off the bench.

Bochy is considered to be one of the best managers when it comes to handling a pitching staff. This year, he has had to make some adjustments. GM Brian Sabean acquired Jake Peavy at the deadline, reuniting him with his former Padres manager. Peavy has filled in for Cain very well. Bochy also swapped Sergio Romo for Santiago Casilla to close out games. Bochy made the opposite move in 2012. He has also moved Tim Lincecum to the bullpen, although Lincecum has yet to appear in a playoff game. Tim Hudson was added in the offseason, and made the All Star team this year. Hudson has played 15 years on many playoff teams in Oakland and Atlanta, but this is the first time his team has advanced to the LCS.

Many in baseball were surprised when the Cardinals hired Matheny as their manager to succeed Tony La Russa, but all Matheny has done is win. The Cardinals have made the playoffs in all three seasons he's managed. Matheny has led the Cardinals deep into the playoffs, but has yet to win the World Series. This season was probably Matheny's best work, coming back and taking the division from the Brewers. The 2014 Cardinals only scored 16 more runs than it allowed, but still won 90 games.

 Matheny has given closer Trevor Rosenthal many chances to work out of jams in the regular season (perhaps, too many), with mixed results. He has shown a quicker hook in the last month, and his "gardening delay" in Game 3 worked out brilliantly. Matheny went out to the mound after Rosenthal allowed two singles, and was behind 2-0 to Juan Uribe. Carlos Martinez was warming up in the bullpen, but instead of calling for Martinez, he called for the grounds crew to work on the mound. Rosenthal was able to settle down, and got the last two outs.

The Giants have not set their NLCS rotation yet, but will likely go with Peavy in Game 1. It is also possible that they open up with Bumgarner. Matheny hinted at Lance Lynn getting the start in a potential Game 5 against LA over Adam Wainwright, but that game was not needed. There has been some concern that Wainwright has been overworked. That been said, Wainwright has been named the Game 1 starter. He will be followed by Lynn, Lackey, and Shelby Miller. Miller was left off the postseason rotation last year in favor of Michael Wacha., and was inconsistent this season. This season, Miller has got the nod in October. Miller pitched well in Game 4, and has been a different pitcher in September.

Prediction: Cardinals in 6

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