ALCS Game 2 preview: Norris, O's look to tie series vs. Ventura, Royals
Start Time: 4:00 p.m. ET
Starting Pitchers: Yordano Ventura (14-10, 3.20 ERA) vs. Bud Norris (15-8, 3.65 ERA)
Status: Royals lead 1-0. In the first-ever postseason meeting between two storied teams that somehow never crossed paths in October before, the Royals ran their remarkable postseason winning streak to five straight (eight straight if you count the 1985 World Series). Despite squandering an early 5-1 lead and a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the ninth inning, they rode 10th-inning home runs by Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas — the team's third and fourth extra-inning shots this postseason — to an 8-6 win in Baltimore. Their fourth extra-innings win in a single postseason set a major league record, though the current four-tiered playoff system has something to do with that.
As Cliff Corcoran noted in his Game 1 preview, in 161 previous best-of-seven series in MLB 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 104 times (.646 winning percentage). The road team won just 68 of those 161 openers (.422 winning percentage), but when they did, they went on to win 42 of those series.
Matchups: The Royals are keeping their rotation in the same order as in the Division Series, going back to Ventura for Game 2. The 23-year-old righty rebounded from a rough spot relief appearance in the AL Wild Card game — that Brandon Moss home run seems like a million years ago — to toss seven strong innings of one-run ball against the Angels, scattering five hits and one walk while striking out five. Extreme velocity is Ventura's calling card; this season, no starting pitcher topped Ventura's average speeds on his four-seam fastball (98.3 mph), sinker (97.6 mph) or cutter (94.7 mph) and only Gerrit Cole did so on his curve (83.7 mph, thrown with a knuckle curve grip). Meanwhile, his changeup (88.4 mph) was faster than many pitchers' average fastballs.
Despite that blazing speed, Ventura doesn't miss as many bats as you'd expect (7.8 strikeouts per nine) and he's prone to walks (3.4 per nine). Even so, he avoids a lot of hard contact and shuts down the running game thanks to his speed to home plate (1.1 seconds) and Sal Perez's arm (30 percent of runners caught stealing). Baserunners didn't even try to steal against Ventura until September 12, and when they did, they went just 1-for-3, including Mike Trout’s failed attempt in Game 2 of the ALDS.
As for batter-pitcher interactions, Ventura faced the Orioles twice early in the season, shutting them out for eight innings on seven hits while whiffing eight in Baltimore on April 25 and allowing two runs in 6 1/3 innings while striking out nine in KC on May 15. In the latter game, Nelson Cruz connected for a two-run homer off him, while J.J. Hardy and Nick Markakis collected two hits apiece in both starts against him.
Ventura showed a reverse platoon split this year, with lefties hitting .232/.299/.343 via a .272 BABIP and righties .250/.326/.378 via a .314 BABIP. The Orioles lineup is righty-heavy, with Alejandro De Aza, Ryan Flaherty and Nick Markakis as the lone lefties in the starting lineup; that trio collected eight of the team's 14 hits on Friday night while driving in three of their six runs. As a team, the O's had virtually identical splits between righties (.257/.312/.420) and lefties (.253/.310/.428). Adam Jones was the biggest bat who suffered against same-siders; he hit just .261/.282/.427 against righties, compared to .344/.399/.604 against lefties, a split worth nearly 200 points of OPS. De Aza benefits the most against righties, hitting .277/.340/.426 this year compared to an anemic .138/.194/.207 (in all of 95 PA) against southpaws.
The Orioles have shuffled their rotation relative to the Division Series, pulling Game 3 starter Norris — who limited the Tigers to two hits in 6 1/3 shutout innings while whiffing six — forward for Game 2. The 29-year-old righty put together his best season this year in terms of ERA, walk rate (2.8 per nine) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.7), though a high home run rate (1.1 per nine) drove his FIP up to 4.22, 0.09 higher than his career mark. Stuff-wise, Norris relies primarily on a 94 mph four-seam fastball and 88 mph slider combo, which together account for 78 percent of his pitches this year; he mixes in a 94 mph sinker and 87 mph changeup as well. He doesn't generate a ton of groundballs (just 42 percent of balls in play), but because he managed to do so more in Camden Yards than elsewhere (46 percent vs. 39 percent), he showed a particularly favorable home/road split. His ERA at home was 2.44 with just 0.6 homers allowed per nine (driven by a lucky 6.8 percent HR/FB rate), while on the road he posted a 4.80 ERA while allowing 1.6 homers per nine via a 14.3 percent HR/FB rate.
Norris faced the Royals just once this season, on May 17 in KC; he held them to just four hits and one run in 7 1/3 innings but nonetheless wound up on the short end of a 1-0 decision. This year, he showed a fairly typical platoon split relative to his six-year major league career, holding righties to a .226/.293/.366 line but getting cuffed at a .255/.331/.422 clip against lefties. In Nori Aoki, Eric Hosmer, Gordon, and Moustakas — a quartet that has combined to hit .316/.411/.632 with six of the team’s seven postseason homers thus far — the Royals have a significant left-handed presence, but nonetheless, the squad as a whole was weaker against righties (.261/.310/.372) than lefties (.266/.322/.387), in part because Billy Butler and Omar Infante struggled at a .650-ish OPS rate against same-side pitching.
Hot Hands: With his game-sealing two-run shot off Brian Matusz in the 10th inning, Moustakas tied the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter and the Nationals' Bryce Harper for the 2014 postseason lead with three homers. His homer off Matusz was particularly surprising, in that he hit just .172/.241/.313 with three homers in 108 PA against lefties this year, and has just a .211/.267/.328 line with nine career homers in 503 PA against southpaws in his four-year career.
Cruz went 2-for-5 on Friday with an RBI double that plated the first of three fifth-inning runs. In doing so, he tied a major league record shared by nine other players — most recently Kevin Youkilis in 2007 — with his fifth straight postseason game with multiple hits, dating back to the 2012 postseason. In 17 plate appearances thus far this postseason, he's hitting .471/.471/.882, and in 151 career postseason PA, he's at .301/.351/.706 with a whopping 16 homers in 38 games.
Catching change: Nick Hundley started Game 1 behind the plate but Caleb Joseph will get the call for Game 2. Offensively it's basically a wash, but of the two catchers, Joseph was the better one behind the plate during the year, both with regards to pitch framing (+12.1 runs, compared to +0.5 for Hundley) and stolen base attempts (40 percent caught, compared to 14 percent overall for Hundley, 19 percent with the Orioles). That could certainly come in handy against the Royals, who were caught stealing in their only attempt last night — the controversial Jarrod Dyson/Jonathan Schoop play — but are 12-for-14 thus far in the postseason.
Bullpen status: Both teams could feel the impact of Friday's 10-inning game given a total of seven relievers who threw at least 18 pitches: Kelvin Herrera (20 pitches), Wade Davis (18) and Greg Holland (23) for the Royals, Kevin Gausman (22), Andrew Miller (25), Zach Britton (20) and Darren O'Day (18) for the Orioles. Rarely during the regular season did any of those pitchers return the next day after pitch counts that high.
Herrera went back-to-back after throwing at least 20 pitches just twice, once on April 30 against the Blue Jays and then on September 16 against the White Sox; he allowed two runs in two-thirds of an inning in the latter, the only runs he was charged with after June 24. He has not pitched on back-to-back days yet in the postseason. Davis pitched on back-to-back days after throwing at least 18 pitches on seven occasions including once in the ALDS; only in the last of his regular season outings under such conditions (September 17 against the White Sox) did he allow a run. Holland, who on Friday threw just one inning compared to two apiece for Herrera and Davis, allowed his first run since August 31; he was scoreless in four regular season outings made on back-to-back rest after throwing at least 23 pitches.
For the Orioles, Britton returned on back-to-back days after at least 20 pitches just twice didn't have a single outing during the season where he returned on back-to-back days after throwing more than 19 pitches, let alone 25. Gausman didn't pitch in relief in 2014; when he did in 2013, his maximum to return on consecutive days was 11. O'Day returned on consecutive days four times after reaching at least 18 pitches; he was scoreless in all four outings.