ALCS Game 4 preview: Vargas, Royals look to finish Orioles in sweep
Start Time: 4:00 p.m. ET
Series: Royals lead 3-0
Status: It’s fairly recent history, but it’s worth repeating: The only team in major league postseason history to come back to win a best-of-seven series after falling behind 3-games-to-0 was the 2004 Red Sox, who did so against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
Here's what most of us haven't committed to memory: Prior to this year's ALCS, there have been 33 best-of-seven series that started 3-0. Twenty-seven of them, 82 percent, ended in sweeps. Three others ended in five games. The '04 Red Sox are the only team even to reach a Game 7 after losing the first three games, and only two others got as far as Game 6, those being the Braves and Mets in the 1998 and '99 NLCS, respectively. Overall, 97 percent of the teams up 3-0 won their series, and 91 percent did so in five games or less.
It gets worse. While just six of those 33 teams to fall behind 3-0 managed to win Game 4, just two of those six did so on the road: the 1970 Reds, who pulled out a Game 4 win in Baltimore only to lose the World Series the next day, and the '98 Braves, who won in San Diego. That Atlanta team is the only one that was down 3-0 and needed two win at least two games to get the series back to its home ballpark and managed to do so. Alas, the Braves lost to the Padres in Game 6 at Turner Field, 5-0.
Matchups: This will be the second career postseason start for both Miguel Gonzalez and Jason Vargas, and both pitched well in their first. For Vargas, that was Game 1 of the Division Series against the Angels, in which he allowed just three hits -- two of which were solo home runs by Chris Iannetta and David Freese, respectively -- in six innings.
As a flyball pitcher, Vargas can be a bit homer-prone. Two years ago, he gave up 35 despite pitching his home games in Seattle's Safeco Field. Like Safeco, Kauffman Stadium is a homer-suppressing ballpark (only Minnesota's Target Field and Oakland's O.co Coliseum rival those two for keeping balls in play), yet Vargas' home run rate was higher at home than on the road in this, his first year of a four-year contract with the Royals. In fact, Vargas had far more success on the road than at home in 2014, posting a 4.53 ERA at The K compared to a 2.73 mark on the road, with his home-run and strikeout rates both better outside of Kansas City. The anomaly there is that his walk rate at home was absurdly low: Vargas walked just 10 men in 101 1/3 innings at home this season, or 0.9 per nine innings, compared to a pedestrian 3.3 BB/9 on the road.
Speaking of home runs, the lefthanded Vargas will need to be extra careful with Nelson Cruz. No Baltimore hitter has a longer or more successful history against Vargas than Cruz, who has yet to homer in this series and went 0-for-4 in Game 3. In 39 career plate appearances against Vargas, Cruz has gone 10-for-30 with two doubles, four home runs and seven walks for a .333/.462/.800 line. Vargas last faced the Orioles in 2013, when he faced them twice, including a three-hit shutout on May 3.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, made his only previous postseason start in Game 3 of the 2012 Division Series, in which he held the Yankees to one run over seven innings, striking out eight and walking no one. He faced the Royals just once this year, that coming way back in April, when he allowed four runs (three earned) in six innings. That was an anomaly for Gonzalez: He gave up as many as four runs only four times in 26 starts and allowed more than that just once. That happened in his season debut, when he gave up seven runs in 3 1/3 innings in Detroit.
Take away that one dud, and Gonzalez posted a 2.89 ERA in 155 2/3 innings over the remainder of the season, including a 1.79 ERA over his final seven starts after returning from an inexplicable early-August demotion to make room for Ubaldo Jimenez's return from the disabled list. (Yes, the same Jimenez who isn't even on the Orioles' ALCS roster.) Gonzalez had a 2.43 ERA in his last six starts before that demotion, by the way.
Given that, it would be fitting if Gonzalez — whose deep arsenal includes a low-90s four-seamer and sinker, mid-80s slider and splitter, upper-70s curve, and the occasional cutter — proved to be the first Orioles starter capable of defeating the Royals in this series.
Mighty 'Pens: Six pitchers have started games in this series. None has turned in a quality start. One reason for that is each manager’s willingness to go to his bullpen early, as both have done so no later than the sixth inning in each of the first three games in this series. In Game 3, Jason Frasor, Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland combined to retire 12 men in a row for Kansas City, pitching four perfect innings in relief of Jeremy Guthrie, who went just five. Meanwhile, Baltimore's Kevin Gausman needed just 33 pitches to work 2 2/3 perfect innings in relief of Wei-Yin Chen, though the first batter he faced hit a sacrifice fly to score what proved to be the winning run, one left at third base by Chen.
Gausman's work in Game 3 leaves the remainder of manager the team's relievers with three full days of rest heading into Game 4, meaning manager Buck Showalter will have no qualms about pulling Gonzalez at the first sign of trouble. Showalter's best reliever this postseason, not counting repurposed starter Gausman, has been lefty Andrew Miller, who has dominated pitchers regardless of handedness, allowing just two baserunners in 6 1/3 scoreless innings and striking out seven.
As for the Royals, Herrera and Davis have now combined to throw eight scoreless innings in this series, allowing just one hit each and combining to strike out 11 against just one walk (by Herrera). Frasor has also been superb, not allowing a run in three innings in the playoffs. In the postseason overall, Kansas City's bullpen has gone 6-0 with a 1.45 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 34 strikeouts in 31 innings, throwing an average of more than 4 1/3 innings per game. Take out 2014 first-round pick Brandon Finnegan, who has allowed two runs in 4 1/3 innings and hasn't been seen since allowing the second of those runs in Game 1 of this series, and the remaining six relievers have posted a 1.01 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and struck out 10.5 men per nine innings. Given that performance, it’s no wonder manager Ned Yost has been looking like an expert strategist of late.
The Streak: With their Game 3 win, the Royals became just the third team to open the postseason with seven straight wins. No team has ever gone 8-0 to start a postseason, something the Royals will attempt to do in Wednesday's Game 4. The other two teams to start 7-0 were the 1976 Reds and 2007 Rockies, and Cincinnati didn't win an eighth game because it only took seven postseason victories to win the championship in that era.
The '76 Reds, who swept the Phillies in the best-of-five NLCS and the Yankees in the World Series, are thus the only team since the advent of divisional play in 1969 to go undefeated over an entire postseason. The '07 Rockies, meanwhile, swept the Phillies in the best-of-five Division Series and the Diamondbacks in the best-of-seven NLCS, and remain the only team in the Wild-Card Era ever to sweep the first two rounds. By the time Colorado advanced to the '07 World Series, it had won 10 straight and 21 of its last 22 games dating back to the regular season, including a one-game playoff against the Padres to decide the NL's wild-card entrant (which was technically a regular-season game but was also roughly equivalent to the Royals' Wild-Card Game victory this season).
However, after their NLCS sweep, the Rockies had eight days off before Game 1 of the World Series, the longest layoff between playoff rounds in major league history, and were swept by the Red Sox. For what it's worth, the Royals would have just four days off between the ALCS and World Series should they complete the sweep of the Orioles on Wednesday, one day less than they would have had if Monday's game hadn't been postponed by rain.