ALDS preview: Breaking down Angels vs. Royals
The best team in baseball will now face the most exciting team in baseball.
The Royals won one of the most incredible postseason games in recent history Tuesday night, in the first postseason game that Kansas City had seen in 29 years. The independent league team in town — the KC T-Bones — won a championship before the Royals even made it to the postseason.
It’s a quick turnaround to Orange County, but the adrenaline should be soaring for the Royals. The Angels and Royals split six games in the regular season, but both teams are far different than what they were when they met in May and June. The Angels boast the best record while the Royals have now captured the attention and hearts of the nation.
Here’s the breakdown of ALDS before the Angels and Royals meet Thursday night at Angel Stadium.
The Angels have consistently produced at a higher rate than any other team this season. It starts with the leadoff man, Kole Calhoun. He works the count in every at-bat. A lefty bat adept at messing with a pitcher’s timing; he sets the table for the two who need no introductions: Mike Trout in the two-hole and Albert Pujols batting third. Josh Hamilton is healthy and all parties have said he has hit the ball well in recent workouts and the five and six spots are formidable with Howie Kendrick (.293 average, 85 runs) and Erick Aybar (.278 average).
Bunting jokes might still be trending on Twitter after the Royals played small ball to beat the heavy-hitting Oakland A’s in Tuesday’s AL Wild Card Game. Kansas City led the AL in stolen bases, and they ran all over Oakland as well. The Angels’ catching battery threw out 27 percent of runners this season — an average number that might not match well against an above-average team on the base paths. However, the Royals offense has been somewhat pedestrian at times. No one has hit 20 home runs and no one drove in more than 74 RBI in the regular season. Alex Gordon (19 homers, 74 RBI) is the biggest threat, but the real threat is the way they move runners over.
The rotation has been decimated in Anaheim. First Tyler Skaggs was lost for the season. Then Garrett Richards — a 13-game winner — was lost to a torn patellar in August. But Jered Weaver has continued to put up ace-like numbers this season with an AL-best 18 wins, a 3.59 ERA and 169 strikeouts. Weaver, one of only four players left from the Angels’ 2009 playoff run, is the undoubted leader of the team, and when he’s on the mound, the Halos typically perform better. Rookie Matt Shoemaker (16-4), the heavily-bearded right-hander who went undrafted out of college and spent seven seasons in the minor leagues, has recovered from an oblique injury and is expected to start either game 2 or 3. But C.J. Wilson and Hector Santiago have been inconsistent at best.
The Angels aren’t likely to see Royals ace James Shields until at least games three or four. Former Halo Jason Vargas was left off the postseason roster for the Wild Card Game, so hard-throwing lefty Danny Duffy (9-12, 2.53 ERA) and veteran right-hander Jeremy Guthrie (13-11, 4.13 ERA) are likely to start the series. However, the Royals have the Angels beat simply in the amount of healthy, available starters they boast.
The Angels bullpen was single biggest factor in their 2014 turnaround. General manager Jerry DiPoto began the re-tooling last offseason by bringing in Joe Smith and Fernando Salas, but it was further overhauled when All-Star closers Jason Grilli and Huston Street (career-high 41 saves) were acquired. Homegrown talents like setup man Kelly Jepsen (19-straight scoreless appearances from June-August) and Mike Morin (2.90 ERA) round out a unit that has pitched more innings than any other team’s bullpen. There still is a question of whether or not they will include lefty specialist Joe Thatcher or choose to go with a three-man rotation and put long man Santiago back in the bullpen. Manager Mike Scioscia expects to carry the maximum or close to the maximum amount of pitchers.
If you didn’t know who Kansas City’s Brandon Finnegan was before, you probably do now. And Finnegan — a 21-year-old left-hander who still was pitching for TCU at the College World Series in June — wasn’t considered a name you needed to know before late Tuesday night. The bullpen is this team’s foundation.
Expect guys like outfielder Collin Cowgill and catcher Hank Conger to be utilized in defensive roles for the Angels, but both can swing the bats as well. There’s a battle between outfielders Brennan Boesch and Efren Navarro. Navarro is versatile and can spell Pujols at first, utilized as another lefty bat as a DH or pinch hitter or play a corner outfield position. But Boesch, also a lefty, made good use out of his September call-up. He’s arguably the better outfielder and has a .263 postseason average.
The Royals bench boasts speed and skill. Christian Colon, a Cal State Fullerton product, came through with a single, a stolen base and finally the game-winning run in the Wild Card Game. Jarrod Dyson hit .269 with 36 stolen bases off the bench; and Raul Ibanez, a shell of his former self, always seems to have some sort of postseason magic.
It wasn’t Richards’ injury that was the defining factor in the Angels’ 98-win season, it was how the team responded after its best pitcher went down. Still behind in the AL West standings at that point, the A’s collapsed and the Angels went on a tear. Ask most anyone in that locker room and they’ll tell you they want to win for G-Rich.
Remember the Colorado Rockies in 2007? Never count out momentum in October. This wasn’t a favorite to make the playoffs this year, but they went 19-10 in August and 15-11 in September to win the No. 1 wild-card spot. Kauffman Stadium will rival some of the traditionally great sports atmospheres in the country when the gem of a venue finally hosts a full postseason series.
Somehow, some way, the Angels always manage to find ways to win despite the odds.
Television schedule can be seen here.