BALTIMORE — Speed versus power.
The surprising Kansas City Royals and unflappable Baltimore Orioles are extremely similar with one significant exception: the fashion in which they score runs. The team that best utilizes its standard method of offense will likely win the best-of-seven AL Championship Series, which begins Friday night.
Get ready for small ball versus long ball.
Back in April, few could have predicted these two teams would be the last standing in the American League. But the fashion in which they got here — with stunningly easy sweeps in the Division Series — makes this matchup intriguing.
Even more interesting is their contrasting styles.
The Royals love to take an extra base, whether it’s turning a single into a double or stealing their way into scoring position. Kansas City led the majors with 153 stolen bases during the regular season then, with blazing-fast rookie Terrance Gore, added seven in a wild-card win over Oakland and five more in a three-game wipeout of the top-seeded Los Angeles Angels.
“Speed. That’s what we do,” designated hitter Billy Butler said. “Obviously you have to be smart about it, but we’re a very aggressive team. When our speed guys get on they like to go. That’s what got us to this point — that, and pitching and defense.”
The Orioles, like the Royals, feature a solid starting rotation, an effective bullpen and strong defense. But Baltimore prefers to take a more leisurely trip around the bases.
Although Baltimore finished dead last in the majors with 44 stolen bases, it led the majors with 211 home runs. Nelson Cruz had 40 of them, only 55 fewer than the Royals hit while finishing last in the big leagues as the only team that didn’t hit 100.
And so, the lines are drawn. Whichever pitching staff can stifle the opposition’s preferred method of offense will likely be working in the World Series.
“Obviously, we’ll be asked to keep the Orioles in check in terms of their power and the big inning,” said Royals right-hander Jeremy Guthrie, who pitched for Baltimore from 2007-11. “On the flip side, the Orioles pitchers will be asked to try and keep our guys off base and not allow us to string together a couple of hits to get us runs.”
It’s really that simple.
“The best way to keep them from stealing is to keep them off the bases. That’s our first goal,” Baltimore reliever Tommy Hunter said. “I’m not too worried about it. You know they’re fast, you know they run. Hopefully they run into outs.”
That doesn’t mean Kansas City can’t go deep, or the Orioles are unable to run. It’s just that each team has adopted the style best suited for its own stadium.
“The Royals can hit home runs. They just play in a big ballpark,” Baltimore center fielder Adam Jones said. “They’ve got guys who can drive the ball, and we’ve also got guys who can run. In our ballpark it brings a different dynamic because it’s smaller, in their ballpark, it brings a different dynamic because it’s bigger. But we’ve got some hairy guys on our team. If we’re hitting in the Grand Canyon, we can still put ‘em out.”
Cruz homered in the Orioles’ clinching win over Detroit on Sunday, and just a few hours later Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas each contributed a two-run shot in the Royals’ 8-3 win over L.A.
“Home runs are definitely a difference-maker in the game,” Butler said. “That’s what we’ve done in the playoffs. We’ve had home runs win games, but that hasn’t been the way we won games throughout the season. Still, they’re good to have when you get them.”
The pitching matchup Friday pits Kansas City’s James Shields against right-hander Chris Tillman. Shields is 11-7 lifetime against Baltimore, including 2-0 this season.
Shields chose not to explain his success against the Orioles except to say, “It’s one of those things, I guess. I feel like I can pitch good against any team on any given day.”
Kansas City hasn’t reached the World Series since 1985, and Baltimore’s dry spell runs from 1983. After wearing the underdog label in their last series, this one looks to be a tossup.
“I think it’s two great baseball teams going up against each other,” Moustakas said. “It doesn’t really matter who’s favored or who is not.”
Hosmer said, “Both ballclubs are ready, both ballclubs know the strength of their team and both ballclubs have done a good job of sticking to those strengths.”
The rosters are not required to be submitted until Friday, but Orioles manager Buck Showalter said his 25-man list would not include slugger Chris Davis, who is serving a 25-game suspension for amphetamine use and would not be eligible until Game 6.