Following the Rangers’ and Astros’ wins in their respective Game 1’s on Thursday, the pressure is squarely on the Blue Jays and Royals to even things up in Game 2.
Having stolen Game 1—up against ace David Price in front of a frenzied Rogers Centre crowd—the Rangers have put themselves in a commanding position. Since 1969, teams that have won the first game of a five-game postseason series (including the five-game League Championship Series from 1969 to '84, the 1981 Division Series and the current five-game Division Series in place since '95) have gone 83–33 in the series, for a .716 winning percentage. Teams that won the first game of the Division Series won all eight such series in 2013 and '14; the most recent to overcome a 1–0 deficit were the 2012 Cardinals and Giants. For what it’s worth, Game 2 has been the one in which home teams have historically had the most success in five-game series, with a .595 winning percentage (69–57), compared to .517 marks (60–56) for both Games 1 and 3, a .521 mark for Game 4 (38–35) and a .472 mark for Game 5 (17–19).
• His July 25 no-hitter and division-clinching complete game aside, Hamels did not have a typically brilliant season, as both his ERA and his 3.47 FIP represented his highest marks since 2009. He’s battle-tested, though, with more postseason starts (13) than any other pitcher currently on a postseason roster and more postseason innings (81 2/3) than all but Jon Lester and Adam Wainwright. Good ones, too: He has a 3.09 ERA with 8.5 strikeouts per nine, not to mention a 69% quality-start rate.
• In his four September starts following a nearly-unprecedented return from an ACL tear, Stroman struck out just 6.0 per nine as part of a conscious shift in approach. Via Brooks Baseball, where he threw four-seam fastballs 35.9% of the time and sinkers 18.3% of the time in 2014, he threw the heater just 7.3% of the time in '15, with the sinker skyrocketing to 41.0%; his rates of throwing sliders and changeups more than doubled. The approach pumped his groundball rate from 53.8% to 64.0%, and dropped his pitches per plate appearance from 3.90 to 3.59.
• Adrian Beltre left Game 1 in the third inning after injuring himself via an awkward slide while trying to break up a double play, though he stayed in the game long enough to manage an RBI single. A postgame MRI revealed that he had suffered a strain, and he received an injection that ruled him out for Game 2. Rookie Hanser Alberto is the only other option on the roster; he hit .222/.238/.263 in 104 PA and played just 25 2/3 innings at third base during the regular season. Fellow rookie Joey Gallo, who hit .240/.352/.520 with 23 homers in 374 PA at Double A and Triple A and .204/.301/.417 with six homers in 123 PA with the Rangers, has been summoned from Arizona if a roster move—which would automatically sideline Beltre until the World Series—is necessary.
• On the other side, Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista both left the game as well. Donaldson took a Rougned Odor knee to the head while breaking up a double play in the fourth inning, and left in the fifth. He passed a concussion test but will be monitored and then re-evaluated again on Friday. Bautista, who hit a solo homer off Keone Kela in the sixth, left in the bottom of the eighth inning after doubling over in pain due to a cramp in his right hamstring. Both are in the Game 2 lineup.
• Odor was at the center of the action in Game 1, getting hit by pitches in the third and fifth innings and coming around to score both times, kneeing Donaldson in the head (presumably without intent, as the runner went in with his head high, forcing the second baseman off his feet) and then hitting a solo homer in the sixth to seal Price’s fate. The 21-year-old second baseman has wielded a particularly potent bat after struggling early to the point of being sent to Triple A for five weeks, hitting .292/.334/.527 with 15 homers in 367 PA from June 15 onward.
Via a wild-card win and sweeps in the Division and League Championship Series, last year’s Royals made a beeline for the World Series by winning their first seven postseason games. If they’re to return, they’ll have to follow a different recipe, as they’re already in a 1–0 hole by dint of their 5–2 loss to the Astros in Game 1, and as noted in connection with the Rangers–Blue Jays series, it gets late early: Teams that have won Game 1 of five-game postseason series (dating back to 1969) have gone on to win 83 of 116 series (a .716 winning percentage). For the first time in the wild-card era, road teams have won the first four games of the postseason, and this year’s victors have yet to trail at any point in the game.
• Acquired from the Reds for three pitching prospects on July 26, Cueto looked like anything but the ace he was supposed to be early on, getting rocked for a 9.57 ERA in his first five starts before closing with a 3.24 mark over his last four; reportedly, the big change was asking catcher Salvador Perez to set up with a lower target. Still, the splits are scary: Even while moving to the DH league, Cueto’s strikeout rate fell from 8.3 per nine to 6.2 and his ERA rose from 2.62 to 4.76, while his FIP rose from 3.20 to 4.06. Not all of the decline was his fault, however; a BABIP that shot from .237 to .345 didn’t help.
• Kazmir struggled after being traded as well. Even as his team plummeted into the AL West cellar, he excelled with the A’s, pitching to a 2.38 ERA and 3.16 FIP. But upon joining the Astros, his homer rate soared from 0.6 per nine to 1.6, taking his ERA (4.17) and FIP (5.19) with it as his strikeout rate fell from 8.3 per nine to 6.6. A falloff in velocity was one factor, and while comfort with his catchers was said to be an issue, it’s worth noting that his two backstops in Houston, Jason Castro and Hank Conger, rated as above-average pitch framers via Baseball Prospectus’s metrics, while Oakland’s Stephen Vogt and Josh Phegley were well below average.
• During the regular season, the Astros ranked second in the AL in both homers (230) and percentage of runs via homers (47.6), and through two postseason games, they’ve followed that template, with four homers—two by Colby Rasmus, one apiece by Carlos Gomez and George Springer—accounting for four of their eight runs. By contrast, the Royals ranked 14th in the league in homers (139) and last in percentage of runs via homers (30.1), but their only runs in Game 1 came via Kendrys Morales’s two solo shots.
• The reinvention of Oliver Perez as a situational lefty reliever has been one of the more unlikely story lines of the past few years. But since washing out of the majors via a 6.80 ERA with the Mets in 2010, he’s found some success, posting a 3.31 ERA and 3.21 FIP with 11.1 strikeouts per nine in 182 1/3 innings from 2012 to '15. This year, he held lefties to a .185/.235/.283 line and 33 strikeouts in 98 PA. He got a huge out with two on in the eighth inning of Game 1, inducing Eric Hosmer to foul out to third base, and he figures to keep getting chances against the Royals’ big lefty bats in this series.
• That said, Royals lefties—including Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon and Jarrod Dyson—were the league’s most effective against southpaws, hitting .277/.342/.429 for a .770 OPS. That’s particularly relevant with Kazmir on the mound for Game 2.