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Looking ahead to Orioles-Royals ALCS: Defense, bullpens will be key

Here are four things to keep an eye on ahead of the surprising ALCS matchup between the Orioles and Royals.

Having completed three-game sweeps of their Division Series foes on Sunday, the Royals and Orioles are set to meet in the American League Championship Series for the first time, with the eventual winner of that series advancing to the World Series for the first time since the early 1980s. From 1979 to 1985, the Royals and Orioles won four of seven American League pennants, but neither has been to the World Series since the Royals won it in 1985. The Orioles were last there in 1983, when they beat the Phillies in five games in Cal Ripken's sophomore season. From 1976 to 1985, the Royals and Orioles combined to appear in eight of the 10 ALCS, but despite being in different divisions, they never faced each other for the pennant until now.

This is a matchup no one expected in March, one comprised of franchises that combined for one winning season between 1998 and 2011. Yet the Royals just swept the team with the best regular-season record in baseball this year in the Angels, while the Orioles took out the team that has won the AL Central in each of the last four seasons. Kansas City and Baltimore are must-see baseball at this point, but here are a few things in particular to watch in this series.

Complete postseason schedule, start times and TV listings

1. Relief pitching

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The Royals have arguably the most dominant Big Three in baseball in fireballing righties Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and closer Greg Holland. Those three combined to post a 1.28 ERA and compile 258 strikeouts (11.4 K/9) in 204 1/3 innings during the regular season. They haven't been perfect in the postseason, and Herrera had an injury scare when he came out of Game 1 of the Division Series due to a flexor strain in his right forearm, but he returned to hit triple digits on the radar gun in a perfect inning of work in Game 3 against the Angels. All told, the three have combined to post a 1.64 ERA and strike out 15 men in 11 innings (12.3 K/9) thus far this postseason.

The Orioles, however, have a Big Three that can go toe-to-toe with Kansas City's. Zach Britton, Darren O'Day, and Andrew Miller, the last acquired at the trading deadline from Boston, combined to post a 1.78 ERA and compile 238 strikeouts (10.3 K/9) in 207 1/3 innings during the regular season. Perhaps even more impressive, the Orioles' trio is comprised of two lefties (Miller and closer Britton) and a side-arming righty (O'Day), yet is impervious to matchup considerations. Indeed, Miller got five outs in each of his two hitless Division Series appearances and made quick work of the righthanded top of the Tigers' order while protecting a two-run lead in the eighth inning on Sunday. The one run O'Day allowed in the series was a solo home run by fellow righty Miguel Cabrera.

Orioles beat Tigers, advance to first ALCS since 1997

Both bullpens are deeper than their big three, however. The Royals have made good use of rookie lefty Brandon Finnegan, the 17th overall pick in this year's amateur draft. Finnegan, who pitched in the College World Series for Texas Christian University in June and made his major league debut on Sept. 6, has posted a 1.64 ERA and 0.91 WHIP and struck out 13 men against three walks in 11 major league innings between the regular and postseasons thus far.

The Orioles, meanwhile, got 3 1/3 dominant innings of relief from rookie starter Kevin Gausman in Game 2 of the Division Series before he finally gave up a run in his fourth inning of work. Gausman's work in that game in relief of a poor outing by starter Wei-Yin Chen allowed the Orioles to stage their late comeback against the Tigers, and he could serve a similar purpose more than once in the ALCS if needed.

2. Managers

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One might consider Finnegan and Gausman the X-factors in the pen for Kansas City and Baltimore, but the real X-factor is the managers. The Orioles' Buck Showalter has proven himself an expert manager of bullpens in his three-plus seasons in Baltimore, is widely regarded as one of the best managers in baseball overall, and is the likely winner of this year's AL Manager of the Year award. His opposite number, Ned Yost, meanwhile, made such a boneheaded move in bringing rookie starter Yordano Ventura out of the bullpen with a one-run lead and men on base in the sixth inning against the A's that it remained a primary topic of conversation even after the Royals' thrilling victory in that game.

If Showalter is considered one of the best mangers in the game, Yost may be one of the worst, at least in terms of in-game strategy. Although now that he has gotten his team to the ALCS and gone several games without a particularly infuriating pitching change or bunt attempt, perhaps we should give Yost some slack. Then again, you know what they say about giving someone enough rope.

3. Team defense

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The Royals made numerous highlight-worthy plays in the Wild-Card Game and Division Series, particularly in centerfield. Regular centerfielder Lorenzo Cain is legitimately one of the best defenders in the game, yet he is repeatedly moved to right late in games in deference to the even speedier Jarrod Dyson, who made the highlight reels with his arm in Game 1 of the ALDS. With above-average gloves everywhere but in rightfield, where Norichika Aoki's highlight plays are more along the lines of happy accidents, one would think the Royals would have the edge in the field in this series. However, according to park-adjusted defensive efficiency (the rate of turning balls in play into outs), the Orioles were actually the better fielding team this season, ranking fourth in the majors in PADE while the Royals were a mere 12th.

Curiously, the Orioles' sweep may have helped solidify Baltimore's defense. Because the Orioles only played three games in the Division Series, Chris Davis — who had shifted to third after Manny Machado's knee injury — still has five games left on his suspension, making it rather unlikely that he will be placed on the roster for the best-of-seven ALCS. That should keep the slick-fielding Ryan Flaherty in place at the hot corner. And with lefty Danny Duffy likely to remain the bullpen, the Royals have just one lefthanded starter in the rotation, removing the temptation for Showalter to start Delmon Young in leftfield, as he did on Sunday against David Price.

4. Top performers

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It should surprise no one that the Orioles' top hitter in the Division Series was Nelson Cruz. Not only did Cruz lead the majors with 40 home runs during the regular season, but he is also one of the top postseason performers of all time. His home run off Price on Sunday moved him past Babe Ruth and tied him with Carlos Beltran with 16 career postseason round-rippers, the ninth-most ever. Having gone 6-for-12 with two home runs against the Tigers, Cruz has now hit .297/.349/.710 in 149 postseason plate appearances. Among players with 100 or more postseason plate appearances, only Ruth (.744) and Lou Gehrig (.731) have a higher career postseason slugging percentage.

Given that this is the first postseason for most of the Royals' hitters — only offseason additions Aoki and Omar Infante have reached the playoffs before — Kansas City lacks a hitter with a track record to compare to Cruz's. However, Eric Hosmer has actually exceeded Cruz's performance thus far this postseason, going 7-for-14 with a double, a triple, two home runs, and five walks for a .500/.632/1.143 line. What's more, Hosmer's triple and his first home run were crucial hits, the former setting up the tying run in the bottom of the 12th of the Wild-Card Game with the Royals two outs from elimination, and the latter giving the Royals the lead in the top of the 11th of Game 2 of the Division Series against the Angels.