Weighing the American League Division Series contenders

The Kansas City Royals will begin the defense of their American League pennant when they play the Houston Astros in the American League Division Series. Whoever wins takes on the Texas Rangers or Toronto Blue Jays for the right to play in the World Series.

OK, but did you know ... ?

* The Astros and Royals came close to playing in the 1980 World Series, back when the Astros were in the National League. The Astros' home ballpark was the Astrodome and they lost the National League Championship Series in five games to the Phillies, who won Game 5 8-7 in 10 innings. Nolan Ryan had 14 strikeouts and allowed eight runs in his two starts for Houston while Joe Niekro pitched 10 scoreless innings. Terry Puhl had 10 hits to lead the Astros offense in the World Series.

* The Astros and Royals have the two top base-stealing teams in the AL. The Astros have 121 stolen bases, led by Jose Altuve's 38, while the Royals stole 104, led by Lorenzo Cain's 28.

* The Astros had the second-highest home run total in the AL, but they also led the league with 1,392 strikeouts. Colby Rasmus led with 154 strikeouts and 25 home runs for Houston. The Royals struck out the fewest times in the AL (973) and were the only team that had fewer than 1,000 strikeouts for the season. Eric Hosmer stuck out 108 times for the Royals. Their leading home run hitters were Kendrys Morales and Mike Moustakas with 22 each.

* The Royals' opening day starter, Yordano Ventura, will be the No. 1 starter for the Royals in the Division Series, not Johnny Cueto, even though the Royals acquired Cueto in a July trade for that purpose. Cueto told manager Ned Yost he didn't want to pitch Game 1 because he wasn't comfortable pitching on short rest later if needed. So Cueto is slated to pitch the second and fifth game, if needed. Cueto didn't pitch well in August or September, although the Royals were encouraged by his final three starts. Ventura is the Royals' hottest pitcher, but when he lost the feel for his slider in midseason, he had a slump.

* Teams that win division titles don't usually like to get a week off while the wild card games go on, but for Rangers closer Shawn Tolleson, time off is a good thing. As the Rangers battled into the final week of the season, Rangers manager Jeff Banister used Tolleson on five consecutive days, and there were questions about whether Tolleson would have been able to pitch in the season finale against the Angels. He didn't have to, thanks to Cole Hamels' complete-game, 108-pitch 9-2 win over the Angels that allowed the Rangers to win the AL West. Tolleson saved 35 of 37 games this season.

* Mike Napoli played for the Angels in 2010, and in 2011, he was a catcher the Rangers when they lost the World Series to the Cardinals. He was behind plate when the Cardinals' David Freese had the big hit that lifted the Cardinals to a title. Napoli left the Rangers for two years and won a World Series with the Red Sox in 2013 before coming back to the Rangers midway through this season. He's happy to have a ring with the Red Sox, but losing to the Cardinals in 2011 "still hurts," he says. Napoli hit .295 with five home runs in 35 games in his return to Texas.

* The Blue Jays offense is ridiculously dangerous, but it could have been more powerful if rookie second Devon Travis hadn't been sidelined with a shoulder injury. He was hitting .304 with eight home runs.

"Devon is a legit top-of-the-line player," Blue Jays TV analyst Buck Martinez said.

* The Blue Jays are back in the postseason for the first time since 1993, the year Joe Carter hit a walk-off home run at SkyDome against the Phillies in Game 6 to give the Blue Jays a second consecutive World Series win. The Blue Jays beat Atlanta for the title in 1992. For what it is worth, Carter was an expert at baking pecan pies.

* Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin, 31, has played in 11 postseason series with three different teams, the Dodgers, Yankees and Pirates. The only season, though, where he advanced beyond the first round was 2009, the year the Yankees lost the AL pennant to the Detroit Tigers.

* The Blue Jays bullpen has baseball's youngest closer, 20-year-old Roberto Osuna, and the oldest relief pitcher, LaTroy Hawkins, 42. Hawkins came in a trade from the Rockies, and while he and Mark Lowe have added depth to the setup core, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons says Hawkins has had a positive influence on Osuna. Osuna had a 2.58 ERA this season, but September was his toughest month.

* The Blue Jays led the world in run production with 891 runs and the Rangers were third in the AL with 751. The Blue Jays got a combined 120 home runs from Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. The Rangers' top home run hitters were Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland with 23 each.

* The player who had the most gigantic turnaround this season is the Rangers' Shin-Shoo Choo. He hit .221 in the first half and .343 in the second. He hit 22 home runs.

* The Rangers had the worst record in the AL in 2014. They are the fifth team in history to make the playoffs after having the worst record in the league. The others are the 1991 Braves, 1998 and 2007 Cubs and 2008 Rays.

* The Rangers were nine games out on July 22. They didn't take over sole possession of first place in the AL West until Sept. 15 in Game 144.

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