Rangers (88-74, American League West Champion) vs. Blue Jays (93-69, American League East Champion)
The ALDS between the Rangers and Blue Jays begins Thursday with a first pitch time of 12:30 PT in Toronto. The Rangers finished the season with the AL West Crown, finishing two games ahead of the Houston Astros who also made the playoffs. The Blue Jays won the AL East crown, finishing six games ahead of the Yankees in the division and two games behind the Royals for the top seed in the American League and home field advantage throughout the postseason.
Game 1: TEX: Yovani Gallardo (13-11, 3.42) VS. TOR: David Price (18-5, 2.45)
Game 2: TEX: Cole Hamels (13-8, 3.65) VS. TOR: Marcus Stroman (4-0, 1.67)
Game 3: TOR: Marco Estrada (13-8, 3.13) VS. TEX: TBD
Game 4: TOR: R.A. Dickey (11-11, 3.91) VS. TEX: TBD
What to Watch For
1. Blue Jays/Rangers Look to Stay Hot
On July 31st the Blue Jays had a record of 53-51 and were six games behind the New York Yankees in the American League East. By comparison, the Texas Rangers had a record of 50-52 and were seven games behind the Houston Astros in the American League West. Now both teams find themselves in the playoffs, and are arguably the two hottest teams going into the postseason. The Blue Jays finished with a 40-18 record over the final two plus months of the season while the Rangers finished with a 38-22 record over the final two plus months. Coming into this series, both teams are still playing well with two of the best records in all of baseball over the final month of the season. With both teams playing hot, something has got to give. The team that can stay hot and come out firing in the first two games will likely be the one favored for the series.
2. Can the Rangers Stop the Blue Jays Offense/Score Enough runs?
The biggest strength of the Blue Jays, their league leading offense, is going to be the crux of which way this series will go. The biggest question mark for the Rangers is whether their pitching staff will be able to hold back the Blue Jays at all or at least hold them back enough. The Rangers pitching staff, led by Yovani Gallardo and Cole Hamels, has been one of the better ones in the second half, but have a tall task in facing the Blue Jays high powered offense. Even if the Rangers staff can slow the Jays offense, they will have to be able to score enough runs against a strong pitching staff of the Jays led by David Price and Marcus Stroman at the top.
3. Will Troy Tulowitzki/Josh Hamilton play big roles?
With the Jays historic offense firing on all cylinders, and the Rangers trying to sustain enough offense to compete, Troy Tulowitzki and Josh Hamilton could be two difference makers to keep an eye on. Tulowitzki has missed the last portion of the season with a back injury, although it seems likely that he will be ready to play in the ALDS, even if he isn’t at 100%. While the Jays should have enough offense without him, his health and performance could play a big part in the outcome of the series. On the other side, Josh Hamilton, the Rangers midseason acquisition from the Angels, has been better as of late since returning from injury, and has ample postseason experience. If Hamilton is able to play at the level he is capable of, he could be a big part of the Rangers plan to overcome the Jays monstrous offensive onslaught.
Astros (86-76, Second Wild Card) vs. Royals (95-67, American League Central Champion)
The second ALDS between the Astros and Royals also begins Thursday with a first pitch time of 4:30 PT from Kansas City. The Royals finished the season with the AL Central crown, finishing twelve games ahead of the second place Minnesota Twins. The Astros on the other hand, limped through the second half of the season, lost the AL West lead, and only made it into the playoffs thanks to a Rangers victory over the Angels in the last game of the season. The Royals also have home field advantage throughout the postseason given their record and the AL victory in the All Star Game.
Game 1: HOU: Colin McHugh (19-7, 3.89) VS. KC: Yordano Ventura (13-8, 4.08)
Game 2: HOU: Scott Kazmir (7-11, 3.10) VS. KC: Johnny Cueto (11-13, 3.44)
Game 3: KC: Edison Volquez (13-9, 3.55) VS. HOU: TBD
Game 4: KC: TBD VS. HOU: TBD
What to Watch For
1. Both Teams Look to Recover After Limping into Postseason
More so than perhaps any other teams in either league, both the Houston Astros and Kansas City Royals limped into the postseason. While the Astros blew a seven game division lead over the last two months of the season, the Royals had a dismal September but were still able to hold off the Twins by twelve games. Over the last month of the season, the Astros went only 13-17 while the Royals went 15-17. Both teams struggled immensely over the final portion of the season, and both are in need of a bounce back in the ALDS. The Astros may have the momentum with their dominating Wild Card victory over the New York Yankees, but the Royals will be at full strength and will be well rested for the start of the series on Thursday.
2. Highest Strikeout Team vs. Lowest Strikeout Team
Another interesting story to watch for is what offensive strategy will be most successful between the two teams. While the Astros have been a high-strikeout offense that has relied on the long ball to score runs, the Royals are more of a low strikeout team that relies on good contact and focuses on manufacturing runs. The long ball strategy went well for the Astros in the Wild Card game over the Yankees but it remains to be seen how they will fare against the Royals strong strikeout pitchers both in the starting staff and in the bullpen. For the Royals the goal is just being able to manufacture enough runs to where they feel comfortable giving the ball to their bullpen to close out games.
3. Which pitching staff can hold up in five game series?
The biggest question mark for both teams in this series is whether either pitching staff can hold up for a five game series. Both teams have had no real trouble scoring enough runs this season, but both have had plenty of question marks surrounding their pitching staffs, with some of those concerns only being further exasperated recently. For the Royals the focus is on whether Yordano Ventura and Johnny Cueto can bounce back from rough second halves to pitch well enough in the postseason. For the Astros the focus is on improving a struggling pitching staff, which starts with game one starter Scott Kazmir, as well as improving a bullpen that had the highest ERA of any bullpen over the final month of the season. This series could very well come down to which pitching staff and bullpen responds better to the pressure.
Both series should be well fought contests and I can see both series going five games. In terms of predictions, I see the Blue Jays winning in four games and the Astros winning in five games, setting up a high powered offensive display between the Blue Jays and Astros in the ALCS.