Battle Royal

By Nick Fathergill

On Monday afternoon, the Houston Astros were just six outs away from advancing to their first League Championship Series since 2005, holding a commanding 6-2 lead over the Kansas City Royals in Game 4 of the ALDS.

Just two days later, A.J. Hinch and his Astros stare down a deciding Game 5 on the road against the runner-up in last year’s National League Cy Young voting.

A five-run eighth inning and a two-run blast by the Royals’ Eric Hosmer in the ninth propelled last year’s AL champions to a thrilling 9-6 victory, thus setting up a decisive Game 5.

Astros righty Collin McHugh will take on Royals’ ace Johnny Cueto Wednesday night in Kauffman Stadium in the win-or-go-home scenario. McHugh threw six innings of two-run ball in the Astros’ Game 1 win while Cueto struggled a bit in Game 2, allowing four earned over the first three innings. However, he settled down over the next three, and his offense and bullpen carried the Royals to a 5-4 win.

With four days rest for Cueto and five days for McHugh, both pitchers should be primed and ready for a Game 5 showdown.

Here are some keys to success for both the Royals and Astros as they attempt to move one step closer to the Big Dance.

Astros: Jump on Strike One

Often in playoff situations, ball clubs will attempt to run up the pitch count while facing an ace like Cueto, and rightfully so. In the AL Wild Card game, the New York Yankees forced out Dallas Keuchel after six innings (albeit in a losing effort), and in Game 1 of the NLDS, the New York Mets drove up Clayton Kershaw’s number by the seventh inning, causing him to tire early.

However, the Royals possess something neither the Astros nor Dodgers do – one of the best bullpens in baseball. Middle reliever Kelvin Herrera (2.71 ERA) and set-up man Ryan Madson (2.13 ERA) provide depth that can last for 2-3 innings in a tough spot, and set-up-man-turned-closer Wade Davis is among the best in baseball, posting a measly 0.94 ERA over 67.1 innings in the regular season.

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While Davis tossed two innings in Kansas City’s win Monday, a rest day in between Games 4 & 5 should give him the time to recharge his arm.

Therefore, as dominant as Cueto is, forcing the newly acquired Royal out after five or six innings could simply lead to an overpowering bullpen performance by KC.

As such, the Astros need to locate Cueto’s good fastball early in the game, and put swings on it early and often. If the Dominican right-hander is able to jump ahead in the count, he can use his sharp sinker and deceptive change to baffle Houston hitters all the way to until Davis comes in to seal the deal.

Royals: Play small ball 

The Royals possess one of the best dink-and-dunk offenses in baseball, starting with possible MVP candidate Lorenzo Cain. No player on the 2015 Royals hit more than 22 home runs (Kendrys Morales and Mike Moustakas take the cake), but five starters hit over .280 in their time in KC.

Midseason acquisition Ben Zobrist gives the Royals tremendous depth in the middle infield and corner outfield positions, and All-Stars Alcides Escobar, Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, Moustakas and Cain compose a very formidable starting lineup.

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The key to the Royals’ success in Game 5 is to stay in their lane. All season, the club from Kansas City has used stolen bases, sacrifice bunts and opposite field hitting to force runs across the plate without sheer power. Against McHugh, they must stay on the path that has worked so well over the past two years. There’s no way the Royals will be able to match up in terms of pure offense with the Astros, who boast wunderkind shortstop Carlos Correa, sluggers Evan Gattis, Carlos Gomez and Chris Carter, and the hottest hitter in baseball, Colby Rasmus.

With an ace toeing the rubber and the most complete bullpen in the playoffs, the Royals need to find any way possible to push three or four runs across the plate and play solid defense.

Prediction

While the Royals have many advantages in Wednesday’s game (home crowd, more dominant starter, better bullpen), the Astros possess too much firepower to lose this game. Colby Rasmus will stay hot and both Carlos Correa and Evan Gattis will homer in a 6-3 Houston victory. Or they won’t. It really could go either way.

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Reminder: Wednesday’s Game 5 will take place at 8:00 ET at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.

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