ALCS Game 5 preview: Royals look to finish Blue Jays, clinch AL pennant
If things continue the way they’ve been going, both League Championship Series could end today, leaving us with five days without baseball before the World Series begins on Tuesday. In the American League, the Royals’ relentless offense, which scored 14 runs in Kansas City’s Game 4 win, has helped the defending AL champions jump out to a 3–1 lead on the Blue Jays, whose offense has largely been dormant save for their lone win in the series in Game 3.
If both LCS are wrapped up on Wednesday, it would be just the second time since 2002 that both series failed to go past five games. The most recent instance, however, was just last year, when the Giants beat the Cardinals in five games and the Royals swept the Orioles in four.
• In the World Series era, 74 teams have fallen behind 3–1 in a best-of-seven series. Twelve of them, or 16%, have come back to win that series, with the most recent being the 2012 Giants in the NLCS. The last AL team to come back from a 3–1 deficit was the 2007 Red Sox in the ALCS. Of those 74 series, 36 (49%) ended with Game 5.
Among the 3–1 series to result in a comeback was the only other postseason confrontation between these two teams: the 1985 ALCS. That series saw the roles reversed, with the Blue Jays winning Games 1, 2 and 4 to jump out to a 3–1 lead and the Royals coming back to win the pennant. Kansas City then overcame another 3–1 deficit to win the World Series.
• The Royals avoided elimination in Game 5 of the 1985 ALCS thanks to 23-year-old lefty Danny Jackson shutting out the Blue Jays. Given the disparate performances of the two offenses in this series and the struggles of Toronto’s bullpen, I think it would take a similarly dominant outing from Estrada to keep his team's season alive. Estrada has never thrown a shutout in the major leagues, but he did have three starts this year in which he held his opponent scoreless for eight or more innings, though those were against the relatively weak lineups of the Rays (twice) and the Braves.
• The Royals have outscored the Blue Jays 33–16 in this series, averaging 8.25 runs per game to the Jays’ 4.0. Kansas City has not scored fewer than five runs in any of the four games or in any of its last six games stretching back to the Division Series. Toronto, meanwhile, has scored more than three runs in just one of the four games in this series. As a team, the Royals have hit .331/.369/.496 in this series to the Jays’ .233/.320/.346 and have even out-homered the Jays, 4–3.
• The only solace for the Jays to take in those numbers comes from two of the most memorable comebacks in LCS history. Prior to these Royals, just two teams had scored 33 or more runs through the first four games of an LCS: the 2003 Cubs and '04 Yankees, both of whom held 3–1 leads after four games and both of whom wound up losing their series. Both teams managed just nine more runs in the final three games of their respective LCS, with the Yankees doing so over 32 innings thanks to an extra-inning contest in Game 5. The Cubs, like the 1985 Blue Jays, were shut out in Game 5, with the Marlins’ Josh Beckett, another 23-year-old, doing the honors in 2003.
• Estrada turned in arguably the best start of any of the Blue Jays’ starters in the first four games of this series. He only lasted 5 1/3 innings, but he held the Royals to three runs and struck out six, walking no one. Add those to his two starts against Kansas City during the regular season, both coming in July with Estrada allowing just two runs in each, and the 32-year-old righty has a 3.57 ERA against the Royals in three starts this year. Of course, those two July starts came before Alex Gordon returned from the disabled list to join Ben Zobrist in the lineup, which was the point at which Kansas City’s offense shifted into overdrive.
• The best start by any pitcher in this series was Volquez’s dominant six-inning turn opposite Estrada in Game 1. Volquez held the Blue Jays to just one hit, a two-out single by Ryan Goins in the fifth, in that game by dotting the edges of the strike zone. As this fantastic pitch chart (seen from the catcher’s perspective) from Brooks Baseball shows, Volquez didn’t throw a single pitch in the hitting zone for Toronto’s righthanded power hitters, all of whom like the ball on the inside part of the plate. Volquez leaned heavily on his sinker in that game, with 56% of his pitches being sinkers; those pitches averaged better than 95 mph, his top sinker velocity since July 2012.
• This will be just Volquez's third career start in the Rogers Centre, but you can toss out the game in which he got lit up in 2008; that was a different pitcher and a different Blue Jays team. In his lone start in Toronto this year, Volquez held these Jays to two runs over six innings, and in three starts against them on the year (two in Kansas City, including Game 1 of this series), he has compiled a 1.56 ERA (though the first of those starts saw him allow three unearned runs).
• The Blue Jays’ bullpen is a mess. Liam Hendriks threw 59 pitches in a fantastic but ultimately pointless long relief outing in Game 4 and is likely unavailable for this game. LaTroy Hawkins has retired just five of the 14 batters he has faced this postseason, making him off-limits for a different reason. Rookie Ryan Tepera could be unavailable for both reasons, as he threw 38 pitches in Game 4 and retired just five of the 13 men he faced. That would shrink Toronto’s bullpen to four men: closer Roberto Osuna, lefty Aaron Loup and setup men Aaron Sanchez and Mark Lowe, the last of whom threw 29 pitches in Game 4 on Tuesday and pitched in Game 3 on Monday as well.
Given all of that, don’t be surprised to see another relief appearance from David Price in this game, even though his previous one against the Rangers in the Division Series did not go well. With a travel day on Thursday, the Jays could use Price in relief in this game, then start Marcus Stroman on three days' rest in Game 6 and still have Price available for Game 7, assuming he doesn’t throw too many pitches this afternoon. They could even stay on-turn if Price just comes on for a single batter or a quick inning in this game. Of course, those scenarios are moot if Toronto can’t win today.