SweetSpot: Baltimore Orioles

I guess there was a chance the Baltimore Orioles were going to win Game 4. But it sure didn't feel like it before the game and it sure didn't feel like it after the Kansas City Royals scored two runs in the first inning.

It sure didn't feel like it once the game got to the seventh inning with the Royals ahead. Their vaunted bullpen shut the door and the Royals swept the ALCS. The Royals have won eight straight postseason games. They beat the Orioles 8-6 in 10 innings in Game 1, scored two runs in the ninth inning of Game 2 for a 6-4 win and then won 2-1 and 2-1 in Games 3 and 4. They're hot, they're fun to watch and they're going to the World Series. The Royals have given us a great story. Now they just one need one more chapter.

Five moments from the Game 4 win:

1. Royals celebrate their first trip to the World Series since 1985.

For those of us who grew up watching the Royals when they were an American League powerhouse, it's great to see them back in the World Series after all these years. Congrats to the Royals and their fans.

2. Ned Yost goes to Kelvin Herrera in the sixth ... then Wade Davis in the eighth ... and then Greg Holland in the ninth.

Yes, it was just two weeks ago when everyone was ripping Ned Yost during the wild-card game for not understanding that you have to manage the postseason a little differently than the regular season. Then he was ripped for saying Herrera is his "seventh-inning guy." Well, Yost has adapted. He used Herrera and Davis for two innings apiece in Game 1. He pulled Jeremy Guthrie after five innings in Game 3. He pulled Jason Vargas with one out and a runner on in the sixth of Game 4. In fact, no Royals starter completed six innings in this series. Yost has a great pen and he used it often.

Wednesday, he let Vargas face No. 9 hitter Jonathan Schoop leading off the sixth inning. Even though Vargas walked him, Yost let him face leadoff hitter Nick Markakis to preserve the lefty-lefty matchup. Vargas struck out Markakis and that was the end of his day. Yost couldn't get out to the mound any quicker. With the heart of the Baltimore lineup due up -- all right-handed -- it was easy to go to the pen. Especially when you have a guy who throws 100 mph down there and hasn't allowed a home run all season.

3. Nelson Cruz lines out to end the sixth inning.

Still, Herrera had to get out of that sixth inning. He got Steve Pearce on a popup to shortstop, but Adam Jones hit a little flare into right field to put runners at the corners. Cruz lined a 1-0, 99 mph heater toward center field -- but right at second baseman Omar Infante.

You just knew at that point it wasn't going to be Baltimore's day.

4. Alex Gordon crashes into wall to rob J.J. Hardy.

More on Gordon's catch here, but he had a terrific day in the field with two more nice plays against Pearce, showing why he's going to win his fourth straight Gold Glove. By the way, check out Ben Lindbergh's great look at the Kansas City outfield.

5. Eric Hosmer's first-inning grounder scores two runs.

The rally started with Alcides Escobar's infield single that hit the second-base bag. Miguel Gonzalez then made his biggest mistake of the game, hitting Norichika Aoki with a first-pitch fastball. Lorenzo Cain then laid down the first sacrifice bunt of his career (Yost said during the in-game interview that Cain bunted on his own). That brought up Hosmer in what certainly had the feeling of a key moment in the game.

He grounded an 0-1 changeup to first base. Pearce made a nice throw home, but Escobar knocked the ball out of Caleb Joseph's glove and Aoki came all the way around from second base as the ball bounced away. In many ways, this play summed up the series -- the little breaks did seem to go the Royals' way, whether it was the infield hits or the bloopers or a bang-bang play at home that could just as easily have produced the second out of the inning. Instead, Escobar was safe and the Royals scored two runs on the play.

The play, however, also emphasized two other aspects of these teams. The Royals put the ball in play. They had the best contact percentage in the majors in the regular season and they've put the ball in play in the postseason. The Orioles' starting rotation also had one of the lowest strikeout rates in the majors (only the Royals were lower among playoff teams). Second and third and one out is that time you really need a strikeout, but it's not a big weapon for Gonzalez or the other Orioles' starters.

The Kansas City Royals retired the final 16 batters. They're now 27 batters away from the World Series. Five key moments from their 2-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles in Game 3 of the ALCS:

1. The final out: 7-0 in the postseason for the Royals.

What can you say? It was a perfect Royals script: Get the lead through six innings and hand the ball to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Game over and good times in Kansas City.

2. Jason Frasor gets through the sixth inning.

Royals manager Ned Yost gets a lot of criticism, but everything is going his way this postseason. Most importantly in this game, he didn't try to stretch Jeremy Guthrie past five innings. Guthrie was at 94 pitches, which made the decision a little easier, but he had just retired the side in order in the fifth, so it might have been tempting to do the whole "leave him in there until one batter gets on" thing that often burns a manager.

Instead, with the heart of the Baltimore lineup coming up, Yost turned to Frasor to face Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce. Eleven pitches later, Jones had fouled out to third base (see below), Cruz had flied out to right and Pearce had flied out to right. In many ways, this was the key inning, the last chance for the Orioles to do damage before Yost turned to the nasty trio of Herrera, Davis and Holland.

As CJ Nitkowski tweeted, Frasor's inning was more impressive than Herrera's in the seventh or Davis' in the eighth. This is one area that analysts such as myself talk about when arguing that having such defined roles is a dangerous thing. Frasor, the team's fourth-best right-handed reliever, faced a tougher part of the lineup than Herrera or Davis. Now, that said, Frasor is a solid reliever who held right-handed batters to a .224/.295/.346 line this year. That's good but not in Herrera/Davis/Holland territory. I'm not trying to knock Yost here, but if Frasor had given up what would have been the go-ahead run at the time, everyone would have been bashing Yost for sticking to his "Herrera is the seventh-inning guy" rule. (Yost, however, did say after the game that Herrera would have come in if Frasor had gotten into any trouble.)

Anyway, in the end, give credit to Frasor for his 1-2-3 inning. It won't got a lot of credit, but it was the most important inning for Royals pitchers all night.

By the way, one more thing that helped the Royals: Guthrie's pitch count ran up in part because of a 32-pitch fourth inning, which included a 14-pitch at-bat by J.J. Hardy. The Orioles might have been better off without so many long at-bats.

3. Royals take the lead in the sixth as Buck Showalter sticks with Wei-Yin Chen.

Hard to fault Showalter for leaving in Chen to start the sixth. The only run he had allowed came primarily as the result of two bloopers, and two of the first three batters of the inning were left-handed. Trouble is, Norichika Aoki singled, and then, with one out, Eric Hosmer drilled a grounder into right field, sending pinch runner Jarrod Dyson easily to third. Showalter then went to the pen, but Billy Butler delivered the sacrifice fly. No home runs in this game for Kansas City but just enough offense to get the two runs they needed to win.

(Cal Ripken made a good point on the broadcast, mentioning how Pearce backed up after holding Dyson on first base rather than jumping further off the bag to a position at which he might have had a chance to grab Hosmer's grounder.)

As Joe Sheehan alluded to, was Buck thinking ahead and worried about burning through his bullpen? Maybe. If you think about possibly playing five games in five days, you're probably not going to be able to use Andrew Miller, for example, for five outs every time out. I think the other issue is that, considering how good Kansas City's bullpen is, at this point, you had to start thinking of a potential extra-inning game, and if you start burning through relievers in the sixth inning, you might run out of your best guys before the 10th. Still, Chen was facing the order for the third time, Showalter does have three lefties and you have to win this game before worrying about Games 4, 5, 6 or 7.

Again, it's one of those decisions that looks more questionable after what happened.

4. Royals scratch across the tying run.

The Royals tied it in the fourth off Chen on bloop singles to center off the bat of Lorenzo Cain and Hosmer, a walk to Butler and a bases-loaded grounder to second by Alex Gordon.

They missed an opportunity for a big inning, however. Both Gordon and Salvador Perez, who popped out to second base to end the inning, swung at the first pitch. Not saying that was the wrong thing to do but Chen had just walked Butler on five pitches. The Royals' aggressive approach helps them put balls in play and avoid strikeouts -- and there has been a developing belief that avoiding strikeouts in the postseason is a good thing, a more valuable skill than in the regular season -- but it can also lead to some bad swings. Again, not saying that was the case here -- both swung at low fastballs -- but a potential big inning got wiped out.

5. Mike Moustakas did this.

Here's the video. Yes, the Royals outfield can play defense and has made spectacular play after spectacular play in the postseason, but the Kansas City infield defense is pretty good as well, particularly Moustakas at third and shortstop Alcides Escobar. As Pedro Martinez said on the postgame, he's never seen a team play defense like this in the postseason.

Some random thoughts on the ALCS as Monday's Game 3 in Kansas City has been rained out ...

How a rainout could affect the rotations
Here's how the rotations and schedule lined up prior to the rainout:

Game 3, Oct. 13: Wei-Yin Chen versus Jeremy Guthrie
Game 4, Oct. 14: Miguel Gonzalez versus Jason Vargas
Game 5, Oct. 15: Chris Tillman versus James Shields
Game 6, Oct. 17: Bud Norris versus Yordano Ventura
Game 7, Oct. 18: Chen versus Guthrie

The biggest impact of tonight's game being rained out wouldn't come until a potential Game 7. Game 3 starters Chen and Guthrie would be lined up to start that game on three days of rest (Oct. 16 becomes the date for Game 5 instead of a travel day).

If Orioles manager Buck Showalter and Royals manager Ned Yost don't want to start those two guys on short rest, then you'd be looking at each team's No. 5 starter going in Game 7: That's Kevin Gausman for the Orioles and Danny Duffy for the Royals (Ubaldo Jimenez isn't on the Baltimore roster this series). Of course, Gausman has been used as a vital piece of the Baltimore bullpen, so he's more likely to be used at some point than Duffy.

Chen on three days of rest -- with an all-hands-on-deck approach from the relievers -- wouldn't be the worst option. Of course, the Orioles have to get there first. And that's if nothing nutty happens between now and then. Part of what made the 2004 ALCS such a classic series was that two extra-inning games between the Red Sox and Yankees and a rainout before Game 3 created havoc once Game 7 rolled around because some starters had been used in relief. The Yankees started Kevin Brown on three days' rest and he got knocked out in the second inning. The Red Sox started Derek Lowe on two days' rest and he was magnificent, allowing one run and one hit in six innings.

Guthrie over Vargas? Discuss
This was an interesting decision because Vargas, not Guthrie, started Game 1 of the division series against the Angels. And it was mildly surprising because Vargas pitched six innings against the Angels and allowed two runs (both were homers). Usually in the postseason, managers stick with what has worked, so you would have thought that Vargas would be the guy lined up to get a possible second start in the series. Guthrie also hasn't pitched since Sept. 26, so the two-week layoff could be a good thing or a bad thing or a nothing thing.

Of course, both are similar pitchers (except Guthrie is right-handed and Vargas is left-handed). Both are low-strikeout guys who give up home runs. Their opponents' batting lines were basically identical this year:

Guthrie: .272/.323/.406
Vargas: .267/.310/.403

Slight edge to Vargas.

It looks like the difference is Guthrie was better against right-handers, so starting him gives the Royals a better chance of neutralizing the Orioles' right-handed power of Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones and Steve Pearce. The numbers versus righties:

Guthrie: .241/.291/.310
Vargas: .266/.311/.419

That means Guthrie has a big platoon split, as lefties hit .297 and slugged .480 against him. Finally, Vargas had a 2.73 ERA on the road and 4.53 at home, which is kind of odd because Kansas City is considered a good park for fly ball pitchers. Either way, it's probably a toss-up and you can make the argument that Duffy is the guy who should be starting this game regardless.

Battle of the bullpens, Part 3
As we go deeper into the rotations, it becomes even more likely managers will have to rely on their bullpens -- or at least rely on them earlier than usual. Even though Darren O'Day got the loss in each of the first two games and Zach Britton struggled in both outings, it's not the time for Showalter to panic (like he did in 1995, when he suddenly was afraid to use John Wetteland). O'Day has allowed five of his eight home runs this season since Sept. 1, and you don't want to completely dismiss the idea that he may be tiring a bit, so I'm guessing that Showalter will be hesitant to use him against the three lefty hitters who can hit it out of the park in Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas.

But that's easier said than done, because those three guys are spread out in the Kansas City lineup, batting third, sixth and ninth. So that likely means either using O'Day against some lefties or Brian Matusz against some righties (and he allowed a .525 slugging percentage against right-handers). A lot of this depends on how deep Chen goes and whether Showalter has to use Gausman or Tommy Hunter early in the game.

As for Yost, even though the Royals are ahead in the series and he may be reluctant to use Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland for more than three outs at a time -- they may have to play three games in a row (and perhaps even five) -- it's no time to let off the pedal. Given Guthrie's severe splits, Yost shouldn't hesitate to remove him in a big situation against a lefty hitter in the middle innings. He has Duffy and Brandon Finnegan from the left side for those innings. Use them, even if it raises the possibility of Delmon Young coming off the bench to pinch hit for Alejandro De Aza or Ryan Flaherty.

History says Kansas City is going to the World Series
In the best-of-seven era (since 1985), 24 teams have lost the first two games of an LCS. Only three of those recovered to win the series -- the 1985 Royals, the 1985 Cardinals and 2004 Red Sox. All three did so after losing the first two on the road, so the Orioles are trying to create some sort of history here. It's not unprecedented for a team to win any playoff series after losing the first two at home, however. The 1986 Mets did it in the World Series, for example.

It's going to be a hard task for the Orioles, but win two of three to get back to Camden Yards, and you never know.

Game 2 of the American League Championship Series was another exciting affair, decided this time in the ninth inning instead of the 10th. The Kansas City Royals won it with a small-ball rally this time, scoring twice to beat the Baltimore Orioles 6-4. So they head back to Kansas City with a 2-0 series lead (interestingly, they actually had a better road record even though you would think their speed-and-defense approach would be better suited to their bigger home park). Five key moments from Game 2:

1. Royals don't wait for extra-innings magic.

Kansas City Royals baseball! If you're not used to it by now, you better be soon, because this is starting to feel like a Royals October. The ninth-inning rally: Omar Infante with a swinging bunt single off Darren O'Day, pinch runner Terrance Gore sacrificed to second by Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar with a late swing on a first-pitch, 97 mph fastball from Zach Britton, that got easily past first baseman Steve Pearce down the right-field line for an RBI double. He later came around on Lorenzo Cain's RBI single. (Have a day, Lorenzo Cain!)

There are a couple of interesting discussion items from the inning. Some questioned the Moustakas bunt, especially since he's been swinging a hot bat with four home runs in the postseason, including one earlier in the game. But considering he hit just .172 against left-handers, Britton is a bad matchup for him. You could have tried stealing second with Gore and then sacrificed, but Ned Yost went with the bunt and it worked because basically everything is working for the Royals right now.

The other issue is a second straight shaky outing from Britton, who walked three batters in a row in Game 1. I don't think Buck Showalter is going to lose confidence in him; the two hits were both ground balls, not screaming line drives, and the rally started with a lucky infield hit by Infante.

Maybe luck evens out over 162 games. But in a short series, that's not necessarily the case. The Royals are making big plays and getting important outs, but they also got some good fortune in Game 2.

2. The Royals get out of a bases-loaded jam in the seventh.

The fun thing about Kansas City's outfield defense is that its greatness isn't hidden in defensive metrics that are difficult to understand or process. We can see it -- game after game, play after play.

This inning began with a 4-4 tie, Kelvin Herrera taking over after throwing 20 pitches and two innings in Game 1. As Ron Darling pointed out on the TBS telecast, Herrera had never pitched the next day in the regular season after pitching two innings (which he had just three times). But since he had been so economical in those two innings it made sense to bring him back for Game 2 -- even then, however, he had pitched the next day just once when throwing 20-plus pitches in a game.

Anyway, the inning got off to an ominous start for Herrera when he covered first base on a grounder to Eric Hosmer but missed the bag with his foot. Alejandro De Aza then worked a nice walk, taking a 3-2 fastball just up and out of the zone. Herrera struck out Adam Jones on three pitches. (Terrible at-bat by Jones, swinging and missing all three pitches.)

Now we bring you Kansas City's defense. Nelson Cruz singled sharply in the hole to left field, sending Nick Markakis charging around third and Alex Gordon charging in after the ball. Gordon is the reigning three-time Gold Glove winner in left field and we've seen him show off his range this postseason, but what he's really known for is his outstanding throwing arm. After he gunned down 20 runners in 2011 and 17 in both 2012 and 2013, runners basically quit challenging him and his assists dropped to eight.

With that in mind, Orioles third-base coach Bobby Dickerson held up Markakis and it was probably the right call. It's also worth noting that Markakis took the extra base this year just 17 percent of the time (the major league average is 40 percent), well below his career average of 37 percent, so apparently he's lost quite a bit of speed this year or grew much more conservative on the bases.

Still, it's bases loaded with just one out. While Herrera's fastball averages 98 mph and touches 101, he's not the same strikeout pitcher as bullpen mates Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Among 233 relievers with at least 25 innings, Herrera ranked just 135th in strikeout percentage. But he got Steve Pearce -- having a rough postseason, by the way -- to pop out to shallow left.

J.J. Hardy then lofted a little flare down the right-field line and Lorenzo Cain -- who just moved over from center, where he had made an outstanding play the inning before on a Hardy drive into right-center (see photo above!), after Jarrod Dyson pinch ran for Norichika Aoki -- made a difficult play look routine. Maybe Aoki makes the catch, maybe he doesn't, but there's no denying the Royals' defense kept this game tied.

3. Yordano Ventura leaves with tightness in shoulder.

Ventura struggled with his command all day and it was curious Yost left him out there in the fifth inning to face the top of the order -- he gave up the tying run -- let alone the sixth, when he left after getting two outs. Yost played with fire and while he didn't get burned in this game, you have to hope he didn't get burned for later in the series if Ventura can't go. Yost did say after the game that Ventura will be able to make his next start. Ventura said he struggled to throw strikes because of the cold (it was 57 degree at game time).

4. Adam Jones lines a home run in the third inning.

On paper, Ventura looked like a good matchup against the Royals. The rookie right-hander had the highest average fastball velocity among starters during the regular season at 96.8 mph; 85 percent of his fastballs were clocked at 95 mph or higher.

The Orioles, meanwhile, were the worst-hitting team in the majors against pitches of 95 mph or higher and Jones in particular struggled against upper-echelon heat, swinging and missing at 30 percent of the fastballs he saw that were 95 mph or higher (as opposed to his 25 percent miss rate against all fastballs).

So those are the numbers. But the numbers don't play the game. With the Royals leading 3-1 in the bottom of the third, Ventura fell behind Jones 2-0 with Alejandro De Aza on second following a one-out double. Considering Ventura throws mostly fastballs, Jones was sitting fastball and Ventura threw a bad one: 95 mph, right down the middle, and Jones drilled a low screaming liner off the fence in left field.

5. Lorenzo Cain with a good read on Eric Hosmer's blooper.

This play seemed to happen in another game, but ultimately proved key. With runners at second and third in the first inning, Hosmer flared a ball just out of the reach of shortstop Hardy. Cain got a terrific read on the play and hustled home from second to give the Royals an early 2-0 lead.

Well, that went exactly according to script. Both No. 1 starters were gone by the sixth. The Royals hit home runs. The Orioles stole bases. Fourteen runs, 26 hits. Buck Showalter's bullpen matchups didn't work in the end, while Ned Yost used Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis for two innings apiece. The Royals win the ALCS opener 8-6 in 10 innings, and it was a heck of an adventure. The Orioles even got the winning run to plate in the bottom of the 10th. Whew.

Five key moments:

1. The Royals love extra-inning home runs.

For all the crazy plays in this game -- and there were plenty -- it was decided in the most conventional of manners: a home run. Or home runs. Alex Gordon homered off Darren O'Day leading off the 10th and then Mike Moustakas added a two-run shot off Brian Matusz.

Should the sidearmer O'Day have faced Gordon? I didn't have a problem with keeping him in there. O'Day held lefties to a .189 average, although eight of the 18 hits against him were for extra bases. But Gordon actually had a higher slugging percentage against lefties, so he's not a guy with a big platoon split. Plus, with Chris Tillman's early exit, O'Day was already Showalter's fifth reliever of then game. At this point, considering the quality of the Kansas City bullpen, you had to start thinking the game might go a few more innings. You couldn't start burning relievers now on matchups. Plus, the next two hitters were right-handed.

As for Moustakas. He had one home run in his final 163 at-bats of the regular season. He now has three in the postseason, two of those in extra innings. (Yes, that's three games the Royals have now won in extra innings via the home run.) The Royals, last in the majors with 95 home runs, have now hit seven in five postseason games.

2. Orioles escape ninth-inning jam.

When the Royals failed to score after loading the bases in the top of the ninth with the game tied at 5, you had to think this was Baltimore's game. No way the Royals recover, right? Anyway, Orioles closer Zach Britton walked the first three batters he faced -- he threw 12 straight balls at one point, as his two-seam sinker kept sinking too much -- after having not walked more than one batter in any of his 74 appearances this season. Weird things can happen in the playoffs.

Indeed, it got weirder when Eric Hosmer swung at a 1-0 slider 6 inches off the plate after those three walks and then grounded to first baseman Steve Pearce, who threw a one-hopper to the plate of which Nick Hundley made a miraculous snow-cone scoop to get the force. O'Day then replaced Britton and induced Billy Butler to ground into a 6-4-3 double play.

3. The cat-and-mouse game with Jarrod Dyson in the seventh.

Kevin Gausman walked Norichika Aoki leading off the inning. Not good for the Orioles, because that got Dyson into the game. With Gausman throwing over to first base five times and Pearce jockeying back and forth in front of the bag, the Orioles tried everything to hold Dyson close. Dyson finally went on a 1-1 pitch and easily swiped second base ... except his back foot came off the bag by an inch or two and Jonathan Schoop applied the tag, and umpire Joe West called him out.

Did Schoop push him off the bag? Hard to say. It definitely wasn't a Kent Hrbek-Ron Gant moment (1991 World Series). Royals fans were understandably upset, but the onus is on Dyson to stay on the bag, barring blatant obstruction by the fielder. Cowboy Joe is nobody's favorite umpire, but I don't think you can blame him here. Ned Yost had a chance to challenge the call and didn't (and it wouldn't have been overturned).

The play would haunt the Royals when Eric Hosmer singled with two outs -- with the bases empty instead of with Dyson on second.

4. James Shields -- with help from his manager -- lets Orioles back in game.

Up 5-1 in the fifth, an obviously scuffling Shields allowed a go-ahead double to Nelson Cruz, smoked off the wall in the left-field corner, and walked Pearce to load the bases. He struck out J.J. Hardy looking on a 3-2 cutter that could have gone either way. With Brandon Finnegan ready in the bullpen and lefty-swinging Ryan Flaherty up, it seemed to be the time for a move considering Flaherty's .174 average against southpaws, but Yost stuck with Shields and Flaherty lined a two-run base hit to right.

Maybe Yost was worried about bringing in the rookie with the bases loaded. Or maybe he was worried the Orioles would counter with Delmon Young off the bench. I won't bang Yost too hard on this one, but the O's had been hitting Shields (several hard outs as well). Shields got out of the inning when Schoop lined out to second base.

Finnegan did come in the next inning and served up the tying run -- with help from a bad throw by shortstop Alcides Escobar after Salvador Perez had picked Schoop off second base.

5. Gordon drives in three with a broken-bat double.

The Orioles drew first blood when Escobar homered leading off the third, and Chris Tillman then faced trouble against Hosmer with two runners on but worked back from a 3-0 count to blow away Hosmer with a 94 mph inside fastball. Billy Butler reached on an infield single in the hole to shortstop, setting up the game's first critical plate appearance.

Gordon fouled off three fastballs but got the count full. Gordon got jammed on another fastball and broke his bat, but the looped down the right-field line for a bases-clearing double and a 4-0 lead.

You can call it good luck for the Royals and bad luck for the Orioles, but that's Royals baseball: They had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors, and sometimes just putting the ball in play can result in good things. So give Gordon credit there. And, conversely, the knock against the Orioles' rotation is that it was 11th in the American League in strikeout rate and Tillman's 17.2 percent K rate was below the team's 18.2 percent average.

This is one of the more intriguing subtexts of this series. The Royals have the best contact rate among the remaining playoff teams and the Orioles the worst. As Joe Sheehan pointed out in his ALCS preview newsletter, teams with the better regular-season contact rate are 29-10 in playoff series since 2009. It's possible that not striking out is turning into a positive predictive tool.

(By the way, Gordon then made a diving catch with two runners on to end the bottom of the inning.)

Five ALCS keys for the Royals

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
Coming off their best four-game stretch of the season, the Kansas City Royals are riding a wave of emotion, speed and defense into their American League Championship Series matchup against the Baltimore Orioles. Here are five keys for the Royals:

1. Get the ball to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland with the lead.

[+] EnlargeGreg Holland and Salvador Perez
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesGreg Holland had 46 saves for the Royals during the regular season.
This is the game plan that removes Ned Yost from the equation. The Royals were 72-1 in the regular season when entering the eighth inning with a lead and 79-1 when entering the ninth inning with a lead. All three had ERAs under 1.50, Herrera and Davis have yet to allow a home run, and Davis and Holland both averaged 13-plus K's per nine innings.

The Royals have even more depth now with the late-season emergence of Brandon Finnegan plus the availability of starter Danny Duffy. Yost shouldn't hesitate to go early to the pen and should consider getting a few extra outs from his big three as needed. Watch what happens in a tie game on the road, however. Against the Angels, Yost saved Holland until a save situation arose. It worked but may not again.

2. Continue to hit some home runs.

The Royals were last in the majors in home runs during the regular season. We know that. But we also know they hit four in three games against the Angels, two each from Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, and we know two of those were game winners in extra innings.

One advantage the Orioles will have compared to the A's and Angels is the quality and quantity of left-handers in the bullpen to counter Hosmer, Moustakas and Alex Gordon, KC's three best power hitters. Brian Matusz, Andrew Miller and closer Zach Britton give Buck Showalter three good lefties. (Here's a piece from the Camden Depot blog on how to pitch to Hosmer.)

It's possible the Royals can win without home runs -- the Cardinals beat the Dodgers in six games in last year's NLCS while hitting just two home runs -- but more than likely they will need to hit a few.

3. Keep playing the speed game.

Yost will certainly keep his runners in motion and use Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore off the bench, but the Orioles can be difficult to run on. Game 1 starter Chris Tillman allowed just one stolen base all year in four attempts, even though Nick Hundley -- who doesn't have as good an arm as Caleb Joseph -- has become his personal catcher. (As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs pointed out, the one steal against Tillman came on a busted hit-and-run where the batter blocked the catcher's throw to second.)

Bud Norris (15 steals allowed) is the one starter the Royals can test. Of course, since Dyson and Gore are late-game weapons, their attempts are more likely to come against the relievers.

4. Contain Adam Jones.

Jones is 4-for-37 (.108) in his postseason career with zero extra-base hits, one walk and 10 strikeouts. He is one of the most aggressive swingers in baseball with the sixth-highest swing rate among qualified hitters. Keep Jones off base and you limit the RBI opportunities for Nelson Cruz.

An interesting matchup will be Jones versus James Shields, who has a great changeup. Jones hit .315/.359/.548 against changeups and has hit .405 against first-pitch changeups the past four seasons. That's a limited sample size, but how Shields pitches to Jones will be intriguing.

5. Hope that Yost doesn't mess up.

Yost plays the same lineup every game, we know his bullpen strategy, and we know he will pinch run late in a close game and bring Dyson in for defense. Yost doesn't have anybody on the bench to pinch hit, so Showalter will get all the matchups he wants late in games.

Really, the key innings for Yost will be the fifth through seventh and how quickly he goes to his bullpen if his starter is tiring. Against the Angels, I was surprised he went six innings with Jason Vargas in Game 1 and seven with Yordano Ventura in Game 2, but it worked both times. Maybe Yost has the magic touch right now.

Five ALCS keys for the Orioles

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
The Baltimore Orioles swept the Detroit Tigers to advance to the American League Championship Series for the first time since 1997. Here are five keys for them to beat the Kansas City Royals and advance to their first World Series since 1983.

1. The starting pitching needs to continue to exceed expectations.

The Orioles' rotation, often considered a question mark, began to be noticed around the league during the second half. The starting staff finished fifth in the AL with an ERA of 3.61. Its FIP of 4.18 (ranked 14th), however, suggests luck and defense played a large part in that top-five ERA. Regardless, the Orioles' starting pitching was better than the Tigers' in two of three ALDS games. With a bullpen as strong as theirs, the Orioles are a tough team to beat when their starter outpitches his counterpart.

2. The bullpen needs to continue to be one of the best in baseball.

[+] EnlargeZach Britton
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesZach Britton had 37 saves during the regular season.
Expect to see a heavy dose of Andrew Miller, Darren O'Day and Zach Britton during the series. And why not? All three were among the top 22 AL relievers in terms of fWAR in 2014. Miller led all relievers (40+ IP) in K/9, and Britton led the same group in ground ball percentage. If a starter falters, Kevin Gausman will be on call to hold down the fort, just as he did in Game 2 against Detroit.

3. Ryan Flaherty must continue to play a solid third base.

The Orioles' defense at the hot corner has been shaky since losing Manny Machado to knee surgery. Flaherty, who is the best defensive option in Machado’s absence, was one of the players who had his share of troubles. In the ALDS, though, Flaherty did a lot to ease the nerves of Orioles fans, handling all 10 of his chances, a couple of them spectacularly.

4. Buck Showalter needs to continue to outmanage his counterpart.

Whether it was going to setup man Miller in the sixth inning of Game 1, pinch-hitting Delmon Young in Game 2 or even putting the potential winning run on base in Game 3 that set up the series-clinching double play, Showalter pushed all the right buttons in the ALDS. While he sometimes bucks convention with his decisions, you can never fault him for not thinking things through. He is as well-prepared and thorough as any manager in the game. Managerial decisions may not end up being a big storyline in this series, but it's hard to imagine a scenario where Showalter is outmanaged by Ned Yost.

5. Adam Jones needs to have an MVP-type series.

Jones had only two hits, both singles, in 11 at-bats during the ALDS. In his postseason career, Jones is just 4-for-37, with none of those hits going for extra bases. The sample size is small, so this isn't a knock on Jones or any sort of claim about his "clutch" ability. Nonetheless, the Orioles' path to the World Series will be significantly tougher if their best player doesn’t perform offensively.

Patrick Holden writes for the Camden Depot blog that covers the Orioles.
I woke up today to a bunch of tweets from Orioles fans. They're still rolling in, mostly having fun and pointing to this blog entry that I wrote in January titled "Orioles look like a team that will decline."

OK, Orioles fans, I can take the heat and acknowledge that I was wrong. Your team didn't decline but improved from 85 to 96 wins. So, yes, you got me.

Well ... sort of.

You see, if you actually read the article you'll see that I pointed out six main reasons they would decline and ... let's just see what happened there.

1. Regression from Chris Davis.

Correct. He went from 1.004 OPS to .704, from 143 Runs Created to 59.

2. Team-wide on-base problems.

Correct. The Orioles ranked 11th in the AL in on-base percentage.

3. Matt Wieters isn't a star.

The caption on the Wieters photo in the story said, "The Orioles need to get a better year at the plate from Matt Wieters." He was off to a good start and then got injured, so he wasn't better. Even with Wieters' hot start, Orioles catchers ended up hitting .240/.287/.391, basically identical to the .233/.284/.404 line of 2013.

4. Manny Machado's injury.

I wrote, "Even if healthy, there will be issues about what Machado will produce at the plate. After hitting .317 with 35 doubles in his first 78 games, he hit .249 with 16 doubles over his final 78 games." Machado ended up missing all of April (in January, the Orioles were still hopeful he'd be ready for Opening Day). After a slow start he heated up and ending producing the same overall slash line as 2013, before going down for the season on Aug. 11. So, overall, he wasn't as valuable as 2013.

OK, those were the first four items, all dealing with the offense. The Orioles would later sign Nelson Cruz, coming off his PED suspension -- and he hit well beyond expectations, with a career-high 40 home runs and driving in 100 runs for the first time. He had missed an average of 30 games per season in his career but remained healthy and played 159 games. The Orioles also got a boost from Steve Pearce, released in April and quickly re-signed and then he hit .293/.373/.556 with 21 home runs in 383 plate appearances.

Still, even with the performances of Cruz and Pearce, the offense was worse, scoring 705 runs, 40 fewer than in 2013. (The AL average dipped 25 runs, so the Orioles still declined more than the league average.)

My two other items dealt with the pitching. Let's take the sixth one of these first.

6. The closer.

In January, it looked like a battle between Darren O'Day and Tommy Hunter. I wrote that both were best suited to set-up roles, due to their platoon splits. Hunter got the job out of spring training but lost it in mid-May after blowing consecutive saves. At that time, he'd blown three saves in 14 chances and had a 6.60 ERA. Clearly, he wasn't the answer, so I wasn't incorrect.

What nobody could have expected was that Zach Britton would step in and dominate. The lefty had made just two career relief appearances in the majors before 2014. He'd been a disappointment as a starter. But put in the pen, his average fastball velocity exploded from 92.0 mph to 95.7 and he became an elite closer. Even Orioles fans couldn't have predicted this kind of season.

Even then, I should have expected the bullpen to be a little better, no matter who ended up with the ninth-inning role. The Orioles were 73-9 when leading entering the ninth inning last year, the most losses in the majors (thank you, Jim Johnson); most teams lose three or four such games on average. This year, the Orioles were 80-4 when leading entering the ninth.

So that was a big improvement and overall the bullpen was slightly better. In 2013, it allowed 213 runs in 514 innings; in 2014, 192 runs in 507.2 innings.

That helped. But the main reason for the Orioles' improvement was my fifth item:

5. The rotation.

The numbers:

2013: 939 IP, 496 runs
2014: 953.2 IP, 401 runs

There you go: The rotation allowed 95 fewer runs. Even allowing for the overall decline in runs scored, that's a drastic one-year reduction in run prevention.

Here's the catch, however. Check these numbers from the starting pitchers:

2013: 17.7% K rate, 7.9% BB rate, 41/39/20 groundball/fly ball/line drive
2014: 18.2% K rate, 7.8% BB rate, 42/35/23 groundball/fly ball/line drive

So, umm ... the strikeout and walk rates were pretty much identical. They did allow fewer fly balls -- although at the expense of more line drives -- and their home runs allowed dropped from 145 to 109. In 2013, they allowed home runs on 12.7 percent of their fly balls; in 2014, on 10.5 percent of their fly balls.

You could argue the Orioles' rotation was better simply due to luck: Fewer of their fly balls left the park. I don't know if that's the case. Maybe they changed their pitching patterns or induced weaker fly balls. Or maybe it was just luck. Or you can point to dumping two of the main culprits from 2013: Freddy Garcia and Jason Hammel combined to make 33 starts, pitch 187 innings, give up 115 runs and cough up 38 home runs. Getting rid of them and replacing with more starts from Bud Norris and Kevin Gausman was key.

There's also this: After using 14 starters in 2013, they only needed seven in 2014 (and T.J. McFarland started just once). If you use just six starters, that's usually a good sign.

So it's not so much that the rotation was improved as it was healthier. That, admittedly, is something I should have accounted for, that the rotation would be better simply by subtracting some of the 2013 dreck. Still, even then, the underlying numbers don't project a 90-run improvement.

It's worth pointing to the defense. In 2013, the Orioles were credited with 17 Defensive Runs Saved; in 2014, 49 (third-best in the majors). Considering Machado missed half the season (he was +35 by himself), that's an impressive showing. The biggest improvement: The outfield went from -12 to +18; the catchers went from -11 to -1; the first basemen went from -10 to +15 (Pearce, by DRS, was a big improvement over Davis, despite Davis' good reputation).

Was there any reason to expect the defense to be so much better? Not really.

So, in the end, yes, I was wrong about the Orioles. But I was also mostly right. They improved mainly for reasons nobody could have foreseen in January or even on Opening Day.

No, not for players -- that's a tired old assumption that should be discarded with the leftovers sitting in your fridge since the Brewers were still mathematically alive.

I'm talking managers.

Take Buck Showalter.

[+] EnlargeBuck Showalter
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBuck Showalter has learned over the years to trust your bullpen in the postseason.
In his first postseason, which was with the Yankees in 1995, he suddenly lost faith in his closer, John Wetteland, after he'd faced four batters in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Mariners. All had reached base, topped off by Edgar Martinez's grand slam. In Game 5, he let a fatigued David Cone walk in the tying run in the eighth inning on his 147th pitch of game. He didn't yet trust a rookie reliever named Mariano Rivera, even though he'd pitched well in the series and kept the game tied in the eighth. So he brought in Game 3 starter Jack McDowell, who couldn't hold the lead the Yankees had taken in the top of the 11th. (Really, this article is just an excuse to link to this video. And just because: Here's the grand slam.)

Then, while managing the Diamondbacks in 1999, Randy Johnson took a 4-4 tie into the ninth inning. Yes, it's Randy Johnson. But he'd faced 32 batters. Showalter let him face four more. Three got on, and then Edgardo Alfonzo hit a grand slam off a reliever named Bobby Chouinard.

Showalter learned: Trust your bullpen. We saw quick hooks in the Orioles' series against the Tigers. Yes, some of that is a function of not having a Cone or Johnson to overextend, plus a deep bullpen you can rely upon, but I believe Showalter has learned not to let your starter go too deep. He's also showed the willingness to stick with the hot hand. He used Andrew Miller twice against the Tigers to get five outs and once in the sixth inning (earlier than he had used him all season).

Bruce Bochy managed the Padres to four playoff appearances before the Giants hired him. He's learned that you can't manage the playoffs like you do the regular season, whether it's putting Tim Lincecum in the bullpen like he did in 2012 or pulling a starter with a 3-1 lead in the third inning like he did with Barry Zito that same year. I was actually a little surprised he let Ryan Vogelsong start the sixth inning against the Nationals in Game 4 the other night, but he did pull him with two outs and nobody on to bring on Javier Lopez to face Adam LaRoche.

Mike Matheny is now in his third postseason, but for the most part still seems to take a regular-season approach to managing his starters. He lost Game 5 of the World Series last year when the Red Sox scored twice off Adam Wainwright in the seventh to win 3-1 and then had a surprisingly slow hook with Michael Wacha in Game 6 (he allowed six runs). He got five good innings out of Shelby Miller in Game 4 against the Dodgers and then had a bit of a slow hook in the sixth inning. The Cardinals got three outs that inning -- two on a double play and the third when Andre Ethier got caught off third; that inning easily could have exploded in their faces, in part because Miller was left in too long.

Ned Yost? Yost certainly has a plan: Get a lead and then hand the ball in the seventh inning or later to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. The problem with him is if that plan doesn't unfold exactly like that, what does he do? His bullpen is deeper than those three with the emergence of Brandon Finnegan, the solid Jason Frasor and even starter Danny Duffy. He doesn't have to rely on his starters to go six or seven innings every game. It will be interesting in particular to see if he rides James Shields, who has scuffled in his two postseason starts. Yost has the bullpen depth to go to it early, especially if he's willing to extend his best relievers for more than three outs like Showalter did with Miller.

All this gets back to what I wrote Wednesday about when to remove a starter. All four of these teams have good bullpens. All four managers should be using them as much as possible. On paper, we should have two low-scoring series. The key innings may very well be those precarious sixth and seventh innings when the starter is getting tired and it's too early for your closer. How these four managers handle those innings will play play a key role.

Oh, and if you're facing a lose-and-go-home game and it's tied in the seventh inning, I recommend not using your 10th-best pitcher.

Defensive storylines for the ALCS

October, 9, 2014
Oct 9
J.J. Hardy, Lorenzo CainGetty ImagesJ.J. Hardy and Lorenzo Cain bring a lot of defensive value to their respective teams.

The ALCS will be a matchup of two of the premier defensive teams in baseball in the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals.

The Orioles led the AL and ranked third in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved. The Royals ranked fourth in Defensive Runs Saved and led the majors in Web Gems, a number of which you saw in their Division Series sweep of the Angels.

What figure to be the notable defensive storylines of this series?

Caleb Joseph’s impact
Given the difference on defense between Orioles catchers Nick Hundley and Joseph and the Royals' baserunning ability, Buck Showalter seems likely to catch Joseph in each game. Joseph has an advantage over Hundley in both throwing out baserunners and pitch framing.

Opposing basestealers were safe on 62 percent of their tries against Joseph (21 of 55), the third-lowest success rate in the majors (only Christian Vazquez and Yadier Molina were better among catchers with at least 50 games played), but were safe on 86 percent of their attempts against Hundley (31 of 36, seventh-worst in the majors).

Joseph is also very good at pitch framing. He ranked fourth in percentage of called strikes gotten on pitches outside the strike zone (11 percent), trailing only Hank Conger, David Ross and Jose Molina.

Royals catcher Salvador Perez will have an impact on the series as well. The thing to watch for with Perez will be if he can catch a baserunner napping. He tied for the major-league lead among catchers with four pickoffs.

The Royals' fantastic outfield
The Royals' outfield led the majors with 46 Defensive Runs.

The Royals have received excellent outfield defense throughout 2014, particularly from Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson. Gordon and Cain were 1-2 among AL outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved (Gordon also led all outfielders with 13 Web Gems).

Right fielder Norichika Aoki didn't rate well on defense this season, with his primary struggle point being balls hit to the deepest part of the ballpark. It will be interesting to see whether the high right-field wall in Camden Yards gives him any trouble these first two games.

The Orioles' infield is very good
Each of the Orioles four infield positions (as well as all three outfield spots) contributed positive Defensive Runs Saved totals.

The Orioles turned 74 percent of groundballs and bunts hit against their pitchers into outs, the third-highest out rate in the American League. That's significantly better than the Royals, whose out rate was just below 72 percent (71.6)

Of note related to this: The Orioles used a defensive shift on 705 balls in play in 2014, the fourth-most in the majors. The results were good, though not overwhelming (seven Defensive Runs Saved on shifts), perhaps because the Orioles were pretty good even when they didn’t shift.

When the Orioles have a chance to get a double play, they do so at a high rate. The Orioles led the majors in the double play component that gets factored into Defensive Runs Saved (11 Runs Saved). They had the top-ranked second baseman (Jonathan Schoop) and the top-ranked shortstop (J.J. Hardy) in that stat.

Escobar’s flash
Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar tied for the most Web Gems for any player this season (14) and has the most of any player over the last six seasons (61).

Though Escobar excels at the flashy play, it's the easier ones that give him trouble. He's ranked outside the top 10 in Defensive Runs Saved at that position in each of the last three seasons.

To shift or not to shift: Mike Moustakas
The Orioles were among the most active users of defensive shifts in baseball. They'll have a decision to make on what to do when it comes to Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas.

Moustakas is a player against whom defenses regularly shift, and for much of the season, that vexed him. But towards the end of August, Moustakas was finally able to make the necessary adjustments.

Moustakas had nine opposite-field hits in his first 350 at-bats. He had nine in his last 107 regular-season at-bats, plus two more in 14 at-bats this postseason.

Key player off the bench: David Lough
The Orioles have a player who may be extra motivated to beat the Royals: former Royals backup outfielder David Lough.

Lough has 25 Defensive Runs Saved in a little more than 1,200 innings over the last two seasons. He had 10 Runs Saved in right field last season, seven in left field this season. He ranks fifth-best in Runs Saved per 1,000 innings over that span (his former teammate, Cain, ranks third). The Orioles often use him as a defensive replacement in left field.

Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield talked about what has happened so far in the postseason and what awaits in the days ahead.

Nelson CruzRick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNelson Cruz rips into David Price's pitch in the sixth to power the game's decisive home run.

The Baltimore Orioles are advancing to their first American League Championship Series since 1997. I think it's pretty clear the better team won here. The edge everyone believed the Detroit Tigers had -- starting pitcher -- just wasn't the big edge everyone presumed, not with the way the Orioles' rotation had pitched down the stretch. And the edges that Baltimore had -- bullpen and defense -- proved key in this three-game sweep.

Here are five key moments/thoughts from Sunday's 2-1 victory:

1. Nelson Cruz takes David Price just deep enough.

Cruz didn't crush his sixth-inning home run off Price, who had been in complete control until that point. It's 330 feet down the right-field line at Comerica Park and Cruz snuck it just inside the foul pole and just over the line. Cruz didn't even seem to think it would stay fair, not even running out of the box.

It was a tough-luck inning for Price. Adam Jones had singled on a 1-1 changeup that was low and well off the plate. Jones, a notorious free swinger, managed to get just enough wood on it to sneak up the ball the middle with shortstop Andrew Romine playing Jones to pull. Good pitch, bad result.

The pitch to Cruz was also off the plate, another changeup. It was off the plate and thigh high, maybe not as low as Price wanted, but he wanted it off the plate, as Cruz -- like Jones -- will chase. Again, a decent pitch with a bad result.

As for the cries to tie up Cruz inside, that just isn't Price's style. Check out Price's heat map versus right-handed batters this season:

David Price heat mapESPN Stats & Infomation

That's what he does: He pounds the outside corner. As for not allowing Cruz to extend his arms, that's simply not true either. Cruz's numbers this season on inside and outside pitches:

Inside: .255/.352/.516
Outside: .242/.325/.408

With his open stance, Cruz is actually pretty adept at getting his hands in and pulling inside pitches. He does have the strength to hit it out to the opposite field (10 of his 40 home runs went to right field or right-center), but for the most part pitchers do work Cruz outside more often than in. Give Cruz credit here: He just beat Price.

2. Buck Showalter rolls the dice.

This took a serious pair of ... dice.

After Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez had doubled off Zach Britton to lead off the ninth to cut the score to 2-1, Showalter intentionally walked No. 7 hitter Nick Castellanos. The potential winning run. No matter who the Tigers had coming up, that's playing with fire.

It worked. The Tigers had already used Rajai Davis, their one potential useful guy on the bench (who is battling an injury as it is). Due up were weak-hitting shortstop Andrew Romine and weak-hitting backup center fielder Ezequiel. Brad Ausmus sent up Hernan Perez, who had all of six plate appearances in the major leagues this season after hitting .287 in Triple-A. Tough spot for a guy coming off the bench who hasn't played much in September. Britton induced a 5-4-3 double play and Showalter looked like a genius.

Of course, it also exposed the same weakness the Tigers have played through the past four seasons: A weak bench.

3. Buck Showalter gives the ball to Bud Norris.
Miguel Gonzalez was the assumed Game 3 starter but Showalter told Norris on the flight from Baltimore that Norris would get the Game 3 start.

What prompted the change? From Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun: "As for Showalter’s decision to start Norris in Game 3, he said there were a variety of factors what went into the decision, among them Norris’ dramatic day-night splits, the ability to use him out of the bullpen in a possible make-or-break Game 5 and getting him back on the mound after 10 days off."

That would make sense, except the facts don't line up. This was a day game. Norris had a 5.57 ERA during the day and 2.99 at night. The other assumption is that Norris is a little more excitable than Gonzalez, so pitching him in Game 3, with a 2-0 series lead, would have less pressure than a Game 4.

Either way, you can forget that 5.57 ERA during the day in the regular season. It's now 0.00 after he threw 6⅓ scoreless innings, allowing just two hits. His biggest out came in the third with two outs and runners at second and third when he got Victor Martinez to fly out to shallow center on the ninth pitch of the plate appearance, getting a 95-mph pitch in on Martinez's hands.

4. Andrew Miller comes on.

This guy is starting to look like a huge, huge weapon this October. He replaced Norris with one out in the seventh and faced five batters and retired all of them. Fun matchup for the final out in the eighth: He got Miguel Cabrera. When the Tigers acquired Cabrera from the Marlins back in 2008, Miller was supposed to be the prize catch for the Marlins: The sixth pick in the 2006 draft with No. 1 potential as a starter. He never panned out with the Marlins and moved to the bullpen with the Red Sox. He has found a home there and his ability to go more than one inning has provided Showalter a great bridge between his starters and his closer.

5. Silence in Detroit.

Has the window closed?

The past four years the Tigers won 95, 88, 93 and 90 games, reaching one World Series and two ALCS. But Max Scherzer is a free agent, Victor Martinez is a free agent, Torii Hunter is a free agent, Justin Verlander had a bad season, and the bullpen and bench remain messes. For the years, the Tigers took advantage of a weak AL Central, but the Royals and Indians have had back-to-back solid campaigns and the White Sox and Twins have some young players to build around or are about to arrive in the big leagues.

The Tigers have a had great core of star players, but in the end, this group may go down in history like the 1995-1998 Mariners, who had enormous star power with the likes of Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez, but never won a title (never even made it to the World Series).

So, yeah, I have no idea what Tigers manager Brad Ausmus will do with his bullpen in Game 3. David Price, get ready for nine innings of work. The Orioles won a dramatic Game 2 by the score of 7-6, leaving the Tigers and their fans in a state of shock. Five big moments:

1. Delmon Young, postseason hero.

Did this really happen? As the bottom of the eighth inning began, I emailed my friend Thomas, a big Tigers fan. I jokingly said: "Joba and Nathan can hold a three-run lead, right?"

Nope. The Tigers didn't even get to Joe Nathan; Joba Chamberlain and Joakim Soria self-combusted as the Orioles scored four runs in the eighth. It all began when Chamberlain hit Adam Jones with one out, which nearly sent Dennis Eckersley into hysterics in the TBS broadcast, and ended with former Tigers postseason hero Young pinch hitting and haunting them with a bases-clearing double into left field. Three quick notes on that hit:

A. Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones visited the mound after Soria had walked J.J. Hardy to load the bases.

B. Young hit a first-pitch slider. Probably not a bad pitch because Young is known as a first-pitch fastball hitter. But the location, as you can see above, was terrible.

C. J.D. Martinez slightly bobbled the carom off the wall, Ian Kinsler's relay throw was to the outside of home plate and Hardy made a great slide.

2. Anibal Sanchez comes into the game . . . and then exits.

Everyone knows about the shaky Detroit bullpen, so when Justin Verlander could only go five-plus innings and left after a leadoff single in the sixth, it was up to Sanchez to hold things down. He had pitched just once since missing seven weeks with a right pectoral strain but retired all six batters he faced, throwing 30 pitches. Apparently that was enough because Ausmus didn't let him go back out there for the eighth, which ... well, see above.

3. Tigers foolishly send Miguel Cabrera.

This has to be on third-base coach Dave Clark. Victor Martinez had just doubled off the wall in center, scoring Torii Hunter, but Clark rescued Kevin Gausman and the O's by waving home Miggy. Unlike the Tigers, the Orioles completed a good relay -- second baseman Jonathan Schoop has a hose -- and Cabrera was easily out at home, defusing a potential big rally that in the end was very much needed. (Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs has a take on the play, suggesting it made sense to send Cabrera if he can make it 82 percent of the time. Which looked unlikely from the positioning of Cabrera when Schoop received the relay throw.)

4. J.D. Martinez hits a three-run homer.

Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen had cruised through the first three innings, but everything fell apart in a 10-pitch span in the fourth that erased Baltimore's 2-0 lead -- a Hunter single, Cabrera's double off the center-field wall, Victor Martinez's RBI single and then J.D. Martinez mashing a first-pitch slider to left for a three-run homer followed by Nick Castellanos hammering the next pitch out to right. It blew up so quickly on Chen that manager Buck Showalter didn't have time to get Gausman properly warmed up and into the game.

J.D. Martinez's storybook season continues. Cut in spring training by the Astros, he now has become part of the monster 3-4-5 middle of the Detroit lineup. He had cooled down somewhat in July and August but rebounded with a big September, when he hit .354 and six home runs. He's kept going in the postseason.

5. That double play.
Ryan Flaherty with the diving stop, Schoop with the excellent turn, Miggy's lack of speed once again hurting the Tigers. Pretty stuff.
Nick MarkakisPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesNick Markakis' third-inning home run gave Baltimore a 2-0 lead.

The Baltimore Orioles took a 2-0 lead over the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of their ALDS on Friday when Nick Markakis' two-run homer stood up after an umpire review. Markakis' shot came with two outs in the third inning off Justin Verlander.

The ball bounced off the top of the bullpen dugout's roof in right field. It's a bit of an awkward alignment as the roof juts out from the back of the fence in front of the stands, but if a ball hits the roof it's apparently considered a home run by Camden Yards ground rules.

Verlander had retired the first eight batters before Jonathan Schoop singled on an 0-2 fastball with two outs. The rookie second baseman is still undisciplined at the plate -- 122 strikeouts and just 13 walks this season -- so throwing him such a hittable pitch with two strikes was questionable. Schoop hit just .153 against curveballs, so 0-2 seemed to be a good count to throw him a curveball off the plate, or another slider like the 0-1 slider that Schoop swung at and missed.

Against, Markakis, Verlander threw seven straight fastballs, with Markakis fouling off three before connecting on a 3-2, 94 mph heater that was up and middle-in.

Verlander's fastball isn't what it once was, of course, and batters slugged .456 against it this year, a number that had Verlander ranked 98th out of 147 pitchers with at least 100 innings.

The offense quickly picked up Verlander, however, scoring five runs in the top of the fourth off Wei-Yin Chen, as Miguel Cabrera doubled off the center-field wall, J.D. Martinez belted a three-run home run and Nick Castellanos followed with a solo shot.

The first game of the division series between the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers was much closer and exciting than the 12-3 final score. Your five key moments ...

1. Chris Tillman gets Torii Hunter with the bases loaded in the fifth.

Tillman had retired 11 in a row after allowing back-to-back home runs to Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez in the second inning before Andrew Romine and Rajai Davis, the bottom of the Detroit lineup, singled with two outs in the fifth. Ian Kinsler then worked a nine-pitch walk (after battling for 14 pitches in his previous at-bat), bringing up the crucial showdown with Torii Hunter. Tommy Hunter had started warming up in the Baltimore bullpen during the Kinsler plate appearance, but Buck Showalter stuck with his starter, who was at 99 pitches.

This had the feeling of a game-turning or game-deciding battle. Tillman was going through the lineup for a third time and the numbers show that, on average, starters don't fare as well the third time through the order. Tillman was still cranking his fastball up to 95 mph, however. On the other hand, he throws a lot of high fastballs and Hunter is a pretty good high fastball hitter, hitting .273/.346/.470 on fastballs up in the zone, ranking him 49th out of 147 qualified regulars against that type of pitch.

Hunter fouled off a fastball, took a cutter for a ball and then fouled off a changeup that was well off the plate. Hunter will chase pitches out of the strike zone, but with the bases loaded it's a little more difficult to throw pitches out of the zone. Tillman went after Hunter with two high fastballs, which Hunter fouled off, and then Tillman finally induced a 5-4 force play with a good curveball at the knees.

2. Buck Showalter goes early to Andrew Miller.

One thing bloggers and writers like myself constantly pound managers for in the postseason is not going to their best relievers earlier in the game or in the game's most critical situations -- see Ned Yost in the sixth of the AL wild-card game, when he refused to bring in a guy he prefers to save for the seventh or eighth innings, Kelvin Herrera, and instead brought in a starter who had thrown 73 pitches two days before. At least Yost was willing to think outside the box.

Showalter's decision was made a little easier by the fact that Tillman had thrown 105 pitches in his five innings, but instead of bringing in Tommy Hunter -- his fourth-best reliever, at best -- he brought in the left-handed Miller, even though two of the next three batters were Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez, two right-handers. Miller, acquired from the Red Sox at the trade deadline, had been primarily a LOOGY the past two seasons with Boston, but elevated his game to a dominant level this season, with 103 strikeouts in 62.1 innings and a .145 average against right-handed batters.

He walked Cabrera but struck out both Martinezes and got Alex Avila on a popup and ended up getting five outs. Showalter brought in closer Zach Britton with two outs in the eighth, when it was still a one-run game. Kudos to Showalter for his willingness to extend his best relievers a few extra outs.

3. Torii Hunter lines into a double play in the eighth.

The Tigers are one of the slowest teams in the majors, although they did rank fourth in the AL in stolen bases thanks to Rajai Davis' 36 steals. Kinsler is one of the other guys who can run, and after reaching on an infield single to start the eighth with the Tigers down 4-2, he was running on the 2-2 pitch to Hunter, who hit a line drive to shortstop J.J. Hardy for an easy double play.

It was a good call by manager Brad Ausmus to send Kinsler, just bad luck. Hunter grounded into 18 double plays and had a double play percentage of 17 percent (double plays grounded into given possible opportunities), well above the major league average of 11 percent. O'Day gets a lot of ground balls with that sidearm sinker. It just stung even more when Cabrera followed with a home run.

4. Nelson Cruz strikes early.

Nelson Cruz Rob Carr/Getty Images

Tigers fans remember Cruz all too well from the 2011 American League Championship Series, when he popped six home runs and drove in 13 runs as the Rangers knocked out the Tigers in six games. One of those came off Max Scherzer, a game-tying home run in the seventh inning of a Game 2 the Rangers would eventually win in 11 innings. That home run came on a 1-2 fastball, lined out to left field.

Now, Scherzer faced Cruz in the bottom of the first with two outs, after he had just gotten Adam Jones on a 6-4-3 double play after the first batters had reached. Jones had swung at the first pitch and maybe Scherzer figured Cruz would take a pitch. He didn't, unleashing that quick, powerful stroke on a 94 mph fastball over the plate and drilling it out to right field for a quick 2-0 lead.

In 35 career postseason games, Cruz now has 15 home runs, tied with Babe Ruth for 10th on the all-time list (yes, Ruth didn't have multiple rounds to accumulate his home runs, although he had 167 plate appearances while Cruz hit his 15th in his 138th career PA).

Anyway, Cruz got off to that monster start in the regular season, with 20 home runs through May. He then hit .214 with 15 home runs from June through August before heating up again in September, with a .349 average and five home runs. Cruz's power hasn't been a product of Camden Yards -- he hit 15 home runs at home and 25 on the road -- and if he keeps his hot bat going the Tigers may end up with a sense of déjà vu.

5. Orioles add insurance as Detroit's flaws exposed.

By that, I mean defense and relief pitching. First, with a runner on, Ausmus pulled Scherzer after 98 pitches and a runner on in the eighth.

Then shortstop Andrew Romine, in there because his glove is better than Eugenio Suarez's, made an error, with Alejandro De Aza scoring from second thanks to an aggressive send by third-base coach Bobby Dickerson (White Sox fans tweeted about De Aza often getting thrown out on the bases, but I have to think Dickerson waved him home here).

Then some more hits off Joba Chamberlain and Joakim Soria and suddenly it was a blowout and the confidence in Detroit's bullpen for the rest of the series takes a hit. There may be some talk about the bullpen's performance in the eighth inning, but the Orioles still scored five runs off Scherzer. That's the bigger story of the night.