ALDS Game 1: Can Royals keep magic going against Weaver, Angels?
Start Time: 9:00 p.m. ET
Heading into Thursday night's Game 1 of the Division Series between the Royals and Angels, you're likely to hear a lot about how the two starting pitchers, Angels righty Jered Weaver and Royals lefty Jason Vargas, were teammates at Cal State Long Beach and on the Angels last year and have plans to take an offseason vacation together. That's all well and good. It's also completely irrelevant. The friendship between Weaver and Vargas will have no impact on the interaction between their pitches and their opponents' bats, and it doesn't make the Royals hitters any more familiar with Weaver, who hasn't faced Kansas City since July 2012.
That lack of familiarity with Weaver on the part of the Royals' regulars is one of many reasons this matchup favors the Angels. Another is that Weaver is starting in Anaheim, where both this year and over his career, he has been a far more effective pitcher. Weaver went 10-4 with a 2.68 ERA at home this year compared to 8-5 with a 4.70 mark on the road. In 129 home starts in his career, he has a 2.66 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 3.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio, compared to 3.92, 1.24, and 2.62 on the road.
Vargas has also excelled in Angel Stadium in his career, going 9-3 with a 2.86 ERA in 19 starts and one relief appearance and tossing two shutouts there as an Angel last year. His lone start in Anaheim this season saw him hold the Angels to one run over six innings, striking out seven. However, the hitters on the Angels' ALDS roster have collectively hit .299/.340/.513 against Vargas in his career. What's more, Vargas finished the regular season by allowing 18 runs in 18 innings over his last four starts, failing to keep an opponent to fewer than four runs or complete more than 5 1/3 innings in any of those outings.
Vargas was also hit hard in his other, more recent start against the Angels this year, giving up six runs in four innings in Kansas City on June 27. Angels designated hitter C.J. Cron (who will start in Game 1, hitting eighth) homered in his only two at-bats against Vargas in that game and has those two homers and two walks in five career plate appearances against the Royals' starter. Mike Trout, who will be making his postseason debut Thursday night after a strong finish to the regular season, also homered in that game and is, unsurprisingly, chief among Vargas' tormenters. (Curiously, Trout and infielder Gordon Beckham, who will not start, have identical career lines against Vargas, both having gone 6-for-15 with a double, a home run, and two walks for a .400/.471/.667 line).
Another Angel with a compelling record against Vargas is leftfielder Josh Hamilton, who will return to the Angels' lineup Thursday night for the first time since Sept. 16 and just the second time since Sept. 4. Hamilton's overall numbers against fellow lefty Vargas are poor, but they come with three home runs in 29 plate appearances. Hamilton — who has been dealing with soreness and muscle spasms emanating out from his right shoulder into his chest, back and side — has received a startling number of cortisone injections to combat the pain, but went through a full workout on Monday, faced live pitching on Tuesday, and is said to be ready to go. Manager Mike Scioscia is hedging his bets a little, however, as Hamilton will be hitting seventh in the lineup after spending most of the season batting cleanup and only once batting as low as sixth.
Speaking of managers, you can be sure Ned Yost will make his presence felt in this game. In the Wild-Card Game, his Royals laid down four sacrifice bunts, the most in a playoff game since 2007 and a total surpassed just once in postseason history. They also became just the third team ever to steal seven bases in a postseason game (joining the 1907 Cubs and 1975 Reds), and the first team ever to have seven different players steal a base in a postseason game. That has only been done four times in the regular season since 1914, one of those coming in the Federal League.
Those stolen bases were key to the victory, as they have been all season for Kansas City. The Royals led the majors in steals during the regular season and were a close third with an 81-percent success rate (the Nationals led the majors with an 81.5-percent rate). On Tuesday, Kansas City was a perfect 7-for-7 in its steal attempts, and six of the seven men who stole a base came around to score. The bunts were more of a mixed bag: Only two of the four runners who advanced on a sacrifice bunt scored. One of those was the season-saving run in the bottom of the ninth, but there's no telling whether or not giving up those outs cost the Royals additional runs, particularly in the 10th and 11th innings, when they bunted in walk-off situations but did not score at all.
There was a time when the Angels were known for their baserunning and small-ball tactics, but those days are gone. Even Trout stole just 16 bases this year, less than half of his total from a year ago. Scioscia isn't immune to managerial meddling; it's just that his preferred instrument this season has been the intentional walk. Scioscia put up four fingers 41 times this season, seventh most in the majors. By comparison, Yost, who managed like a bull in a china shop in most other regards, was the majors' stingiest manager when it came to intentional passes, issuing just 14.
Both managers in this game have the luxury of strong bullpens, with the Angels' rebuilt midseason by general manager Jerry DiPoto and the Royals' featuring the devastating trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland. That could lead to early hooks for both pitchers, particularly with Scioscia intending to start Weaver on short rest in Game 4 if that series goes that far. That doesn't guarantee that Yost won't get creative again, however, particularly if Vargas stumbles early.
One thing's for sure: These two teams are hungry. We saw how much fight the Royals have in them on Tuesday, and, believe it or not, the team with the second-longest playoff drought heading into this postseason is the Angels, who haven't been here since 2009, when they lost the American League Championship Series to the eventual world champion Yankees