ALCS Game 1 preview: Tillman, Shields square off in pennant series opener
Start Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Status: Neither the Royals nor Orioles has lost a game since Sept. 27 and enter this series a combined 7-0 in this postseason. This is just the fourth time in the wild-card era that both league championship series opponents swept their respective division series, following the Braves and Cardinals in the 1996 NLCS, the Rockies and Diamondbacks in the 2007 NLCS, and the Yankees and Angels in the 2009 ALCS. In '07, the Rockies, who had at that point won 17 of their last 18 games, swept the Diamondbacks, as well. The other two series went six (Yankees over Angels) and seven games (Braves over Cardinals), respectively.
In the 161 previous best-of-seven series in major league history (the LCS from 1985 to 2013 and the World Series from 1905 to 1918 and 1922 to 2013), the winner of Game 1 went on to win the series in 104 of them, or 64.6 percent.
Matchups: With four days off between their Division Series-clinching wins and Game 1, the Royals and Orioles both had the opportunity to set up their rotations however they saw fit. That has resulted in the Game 1 matchup of James Shields and Chris Tillman.
Tillman made his postseason debut in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Tigers and came out guns blazing, striking out the side in the top of the first with mid-90s fastballs. He then gave up back-to-back home runs to start the top of the second and was done after five innings and 105 pitches despite having allowed only those two runs. He has had seven days off to recover from that performance, and the Orioles are hoping he can pace himself better in this game. Over his last 22 starts, including the Division Series, Tillman has posted a 2.42 ERA. In 19 home starts this season (including the Division Series), he has posted 2.59 ERA. In his only start against the Royals this season, in Kansas City back in May, he threw a five-hit shutout.
For Shields, this will be his third start of this postseason and the ninth of his career, and he carries into it a 4.96 career postseason ERA, with just three of his previous eight playoff starts having been quality. In this year's Wild-Card Game against the Athletics, Shields gave up two runs in five innings before putting the first two men on base in the sixth, getting pulled from the game after just 88 pitches. That was when Royals manager Ned Yost made the controversial decision to bring rookie starter Yordano Ventura into a high-leverage relief situation with the Royals nursing a 3-2 lead and the tying and go-ahead runs on base. Ventura gave up a home run, charging two more runs to Shields' ledger.
Shields allowed just two runs in six innings in the Royals' clincher against the Angels on Sunday, his first quality postseason start since Game 1 of the 2008 ALCS. Game 1 against Baltimore will be Shields' first road start of this postseason, which he should welcome. In his two years with the Royals, Shields is 8-12 with a 4.00 ERA at in 33 home starts, including this postseason, and 20-5 with a 2.52 ERA in 37 starts on the road.
Curiously, every run allowed by these pitchers thus far this postseason has scored on a home run. Tillman gave up his two runs to the Tigers on consecutive homers by Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez. The four runs charged to Shields in the Wild-Card Game scored on a pair of homers by Brandon Moss, and the two runs he allowed in Game 3 of the Division Series came on solo home runs by Mike Trout and Albert Pujols. It's interesting to note, then, that while the players on the Royals' roster have hit just .221 as a group against Tillman, they have slugged .451, giving them a robust .230 isolated slugging against the Baltimore ace. Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, and Alex Gordon (twice) have all homered against him.
Meanwhile, long-time Orioles outfielders Nick Markakis and Adam Jones are very familiar with long-time Rays starter Shields and have had a fair amount of success against him in their careers; Markakis has hit .296/.390/.451 against Shields, and Jones has hit .304/.319/.522. In fact, the only men with more than Markakis' 82 plate appearances against Shields are Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano. Despite that familiarity, both of Shields' starts against the Orioles this year were quality starts in which he completed seven innings, the last coming on May 18.
Hot Hands: The two hitters to watch at the onset of this series are Orioles designated hitter Nelson Cruz and Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer. Cruz is one of the top postseason sluggers of all time, ranking third among players with 100 or more postseason plate appearances with a .710 slugging percentage (behind only Babe Ruth's .744 and Lou Gehrig's .731). He also knocked Ruth out of the top ten all-time in postseason home runs with his two round-trippers against the Tigers, giving him 16 on his career and tying him with Carlos Beltran for ninth all-time.
Cruz went 6-for-12 with those two homers in the Division Series, but Hosmer has done even better 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. Both the triple (coming with the Royals down by one run in the bottom of the 12th inning of the Wild-Card Game) and the first home run (coming in the 11th inning of Game 2 against the Angels) are among the most important hits of the Royals' run to this point.
Baltimore lefty Andrew Miller dominated in a pair of five-out relief appearances against the Tigers and hasn't allowed a hit in 4 2/3 innings dating back to the last two games of the regular season. Royals closer Greg Holland, meanwhile, hasn't allowed a hit since August. He did get himself into a bit of trouble in the Wild-Card Game via a trio of walks, but since the calendar flipped to September, he has struck out 17 men in 12 innings without allowing a hit or a run. Holland has also converted 22 consecutive saves since last blowing one on July 24.
Rosters/Lineups: The Orioles have added lefty reliever Brian Matusz to their ALCS roster, dropping displaced starter Ubaldo Jimenez, a move prompted by the fact that the Royals have a more balanced lineup than the heavily righthanded Tigers. The Matusz/Jimenez swap is the only change either team has made to their roster coming into this series. Because the Orioles needed just three games to defeat the Tigers in the Division Series, Chris Davis' suspension still has five games remaining, making the team's decision not to include him on the roster an easy one.
Nick Hundley will catch Tillman on Friday night, as he has in each of Tillman's last 14 starts, including Game 1 of the Division Series. Given that the Orioles' catchers as a team failed to reach base in the ALDS, that may not seem significant, but Caleb Joseph led the American League in caught-stealing percentage, and the Royals led baseball in stolen bases and have stolen 12 more this postseason without being caught. Fortunately for Baltimore, Tillman excels at shutting down the running game. There have been only two successful steal attempts against him in the last two years and just 13 attempts in 589 opportunities over that same span.