If someone told me six months ago that the two teams competing for the American League championship would be the Orioles and Royals, I'd probably have told them they were dreaming. Back in March, I would have argued that while each team was capable of competing with the best, a lot of things would need to fall into line for the two to outlast powerful American League rivals such the Tigers, Athletics, Angels and the defending world champion Red Sox.
Just as the Orioles did to the Tigers, the Royals swept the Angels in the American League Division Series. However, the Royals' accomplishment came on the back of two hard-fought extra-inning wins away from home to start the series. The third game was the only blowout of the series and the only game in which Royals hitters looked threatening. In the first two wins, which were arguably the most important two, the Royals instead relied on fantastic pitching from starters Jason Vargas and Yordano Ventura and their outstanding bullpen, which is just as impressive as the Orioles'.
The Orioles, on the other hand, relied on offensive power in the first two games and ambushed the underperforming Tigers bullpen late in each contest. With a powerful lineup led by Nelson Cruz and Adam Jones, the Orioles will make any side pay for just the slightest mistakes. The other keys to the Orioles' ALDS success was their bullpen, which allowed just three runs in 12 innings of relief, and their impressive defense, which made just the one error in three games.
Looking ahead to the American League Championship Series, the two teams are very evenly matched and the winner will simply be the team which makes the most of their opportunities - which, given the pitching strength on display, may be limited. Here's my scouting report:
Rotation: The Royals will likely go with James Shields, Ventura, Jason Vargas and former Oriole Jeremy Guthrie, while the Orioles will go with Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez. The four Royals combined worked to a 3.56 ERA this season, while the four Orioles combined to work to a 3.44 mark. It has been said by some that each team lacks a genuine ace and while this may be true, the consistency of each rotation has proven that an out-and-out ace isn't required - as I'm sure the Tigers would now agree.
Bullpen: Each team's bullpen was outstanding during the regular season, with Orioles relievers working to a 3.10 ERA (third-best in the American League) and Royals relievers working to a 3.30 ERA (sixth-best). The stars for the Orioles are Andrew Miller (1.35 ERA), Darren O'Day (1.70 ERA) and Zach Britton (1.65 ERA). But they are evenly matched by the Royals trio of Wade Davis (1.00 ERA), Kelvin Herrera (1.41 ERA) and Greg Holland (1.44 ERA). One thing that can almost be guaranteed is that if either teams jumps out to an early lead, then it'll be a tough ask fighting back against quality bullpen arms.
Defense: Despite a poor month of September, when Buck Showalter was somewhat experimental with his infield, the Orioles committed just 87 errors throughout the regular season. By comparison, the Royals committed 104. The Orioles' regular infielders, despite missing Manny Machado and Chris Davis (for at least the first five games), ooze talent and with a strong showing in the ALDS, Ryan Flaherty has relieved fears as to who would play third base. In addition, Jones and Nick Markakis have had sensational seasons in the outfield and are each capable of making series-defining plays. The defensive stars for the Royals are undoubtedly left fielder Alex Gordon and shortstop Alcides Escobar.
Offense: Quite simply, the Orioles have the power in this department while the Royals have the speed. The Orioles slugged a major league-leading 211 home runs this season, far more than the Royals, who hit the least in the major leagues with just 95. By contrast, the Orioles stole the least amount of bases all season with just 44, while the Royals stole the most with 153. The speed of the Royals would worry manager Buck Showalter, but he has a weapon up his sleeve - and that's rookie Caleb Joseph. Despite hitting just .207 in 82 games, Joseph was extremely impressive behind the dish and nailed 23 of 57 base stealers - a success rate of more than 40 percent. Despite fellow catcher Nick Hundley being a more reliable offensive option, I expect Joseph to feature heavily behind the plate during the series.
In summary, these two teams are very evenly matched and the ALCS looks set to be very closely fought. Call me biased if you must, but I truly think the Orioles are slight favorites at this stage, largely due to their superior defense and home run power being huge advantages.
What are your thoughts? Do you think the Orioles will be the American League champions?
Daniel Clark blogs about the Orioles at The Big Leagues Daily from Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on Twitter: @DC_TBLDaily. His thoughts on the O's appear here as part of MASNsports.com's continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.