The 2014 American League Championship Series will feature neither the Red Sox, nor the Yankees, and yet it will still be televised! TBS will carry the games, and I was lucky enough to talk with TBS Studio Host Casey Stern about the upcoming series and how he thought the two teams squared up.
Casey Stern: First of all, something different is always going to draw people in and you've got a new fresh feel about both of these teams. The Orioles won their first division since 1997, the Royals haven't been in the playoffs in 29 years - they go back to the days of "Back to the Future" in 1985. Anytime you've got underdogs, that is going to bring people in.
Then, I hate to say this but in the National League you have two very professional, very good teams that we expect to be there year in and year out and at the end of that you just want to say "blah, blah, blah." This American League Championship Series is a complete unknown. You've got kids hitting the national stage for the first time. You got a brand of baseball Kansas City plays that I know we call "small ball" in 2014, but its the baseball I grew up with and the baseball I learned as a style of finding a way to get runs. And the defense for Kansas City is better than any team I've seen in the playoffs in many many years.
So its the brand of baseball, the underdog nature, the excitement - that "Little League" feel you get on both teams. I think you'll get a lot of excitement and I think this will actually be more one of the more interesting championship series we've seen in the last two decades.
Royals Review: The Royals running game has gotten a lot of attention lately by leading the league in steals and with their performances against the A’s and Angels in the postseason. The O’s have a good defensive catcher in Caleb Joseph. Something has to give – how do you see the running game playing out in this series?
Casey Stern: At the end of the day, Kansas City can't steal first base. I think Kansas City will be able to work the legs. No offense to Caleb Joseph, but he's a kid that has played in nowhere big a spotlight as this before. But even if you had Yadier Molina - the best in the business over the last decade, and a guy Kansas City could still face in the World Series - the Royals are still going to run. Terrance Gore, I don't care, take Pudge Rodriguez, but no one is throwing him out. If he gets a jump, he's getting a base no matter how quick the catcher is. When you look at the speed of Gore and Jarrod Dyson and Alcides Escobar, and Lorenzo Cain, I expect Kansas City to steal bases.
But what you need to remember is they have to get on base. The reason they were able to do it so successfully in the series against the Angels and the Wild Card game is the fact they we saw those guys, those pesky hitters at the top of the lineup, getting those base-hits. If they can keep them off base, I think one of the keys to the Orioles is to get the top of the order out and neutralize Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon in the middle.
Royals Review: Buck Showalter has been praised for turning the O’s around and for being a brilliant baseball mind, while Ned Yost still seems to get criticism for his moves. How do you see these managers, and how big of a factor will they be in this series?
Casey Stern: I think its pretty big to be honest with you. I know Ned and he's one of the nicer guys and that's not lip service, but this is one of the bigger advantages the Orioles have in this series. I think if you weigh out the "tale of the tape" a lot of it is very even, some of it even weighs towards Kansas City, but this is one spot that is way to the side of Baltimore.
Buck Showalter pretty much undressed Brad Ausmus in the American League Divisional Series. Ned Yost has gotten himself in a lot of trouble during the course of the year, the Yordano Ventura move was one of the worst ones you'll see. He got lucky twice with Greg Holland sitting there in the ninth inning for who knows what reason with Mike Trout and Albert Pujols up in the ninth of Game Two where you have to keep it tied to have a chance. But he waits for Holland until the save situation, which is a terrible thing to do.
Buck has really been a maestro with this bullpen on his end. I think in close games its a monster factor. I do believe that at times the Royals have won in spite of Ned, and I know its terrible to say and he really is a smart baseball guy, but there are times where he shows a lack of a willingness to adjust and that's a major problem when you get into the post-season. You can't just trust the way you've gotten here, you have to do things that are different. I don't know yet whether he can do that at the level that Buck Showalter can.
Royals Review: Chris Davis is out for this series, and Manny Machado and Matt Wieters have been out with injury for some time for the Orioles. How big of a blow are these losses to their offense?
Casey Stern: Honestly it was more of an impact a couple months ago. The Machado thing they've dealt with for so long. Ryan Flaherty is not a very good defensive third baseman, but man has he stepped up lately. He was terrific in the Division Series making some great plays, looking very smooth out there.
Chris Davis to me is about presence. I don't like the fact that in the ninth or tenth inning, that you can't bring that guy out on-deck to go scare an opposing manager. That's the kind of guy you want to have against Ned where you can kind of work him and get him to waste one of those relief pitchers. I don't like that they're missing that aspect of it.
The Wieters part I think is very important. Catching we always look at just throwing out runners, but the pitching aspect, the handling of the game, knowing when to go out to a mound to settle down a pitcher, you know those kind of things are not going to be there with Nick Hundley or Caleb Joseph. So I think these are issues, but when you get to this point, its like the Royals issue with experience. Yea, you like the experience the Giants or Cardinals have, great, but when you get past that Wild Card game and sweep the Angels, the Royals have enough experience to go the rest of the way. Same with the Orioles and injuries. No, its not perfect to have all the injuries but to get to this point where they've gotten right now its kind of a moot point.
Royals Review: The Royals have built their team in a very unique manner, with high-contact, lower power hitters, tremendous defenders, and good base-stealers, and a good pitching staff. With their success, do you see more teams trying to replicate that or is this formula unique to the Royals because of their stadium?
Casey Stern: I think its unique for a couple of reasons. One, the ballpark situation. Two, because of the talent level that we're talking about, it is not easy to go compile the kind of speed that they have. I think in the American League its extremely unique to see this. We've seen this in the National League. It reminds us of Vince Coleman and Willie McGee and the Cardinals in the 80s. Its rare you see this in an American League team where really you're supposed to thump to get all your runs like the Orioles do. To me that is the most intriguing part of this series - the Royals speed against the power of the Orioles.
I don't know if its necessarily going to be a trend, I don't think this is like the spread option or the pistol offense in the NFL where now all of a sudden we're going to see this followed. I do think though that for the Royals they really did a good job utilizing the talent they have. They don't have the kind of team or park to go win the other way, so good on them for "dotting the i's" and "crossing the t's" on the roster with the Gores and Dysons of the world. Its made for a very exciting baseball team.
Royals Review: What is the national perspective of the Royals and their chances of potentially winning it all?
Casey Stern: I'm picking them to win this series. I think they can take it the distance. I'll also be fair and tell you like most of the world I didn't pick them to have much of a chance to go win that first round. I thought before the year they'd be a playoff team. I had them as the Wild Card. I wasn't surprised they got there to be honest with you. I think they did a pretty poor job putting their foot down on the throat of the Tigers and could have won this division.
I give them a heckuva shot. I think its comes down to a couple things with me. The rotation depth is going to be a key to watch in this series. How do the guys do who are out once you get past Ventura and Shields? What do you get out of Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie? I think on the Orioles side you've got Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez who is better than a lot of people think. I think that Game 3 and Game 4 matchup will be very intriguing to watch from both sides.
The two most important players in this series are Eric Hosmer and Adam Jones. Jones played terribly against the Yankees a couple of years ago in the post-season and he didn't do really anything in this first round. He has to be the guy that says "jump on my back", that's what the face of the franchise does. Eric Hosmer looks in the last week the way all of us thought he'd look "someday" in his career. That day is today. That day is October 2014. If Hosmer continues to hit the way he's hitting, the Royals can win the whole thing.
Royals Review: What are some storylines you would like to focus on this series?
Casey Stern: Clearly you're going to look at the two fanbases and how long they've been starving. You're going to get two great atmospheres. I'll quote Phil Coke, the former Yankee who said years ago when I was covering the Yankees-Tigers series that it was "dress like a seat night" at Yankee Stadium. It was ho-hum. It was like when the Braves made it for 59 years in a row. In this series, you're going to get two starving fanbases with crazy crowds.
Second, its going to be guys becoming stars. We're going to be giving the attention that's deserved to a Nick Markakis for the year he's had, or for Kevin Gausman and the pitcher he can be, or for that bullpen in that back end with Zack Britton, or for Buck Showalter for the job he's done. On the other side, we'll give attention to Eric Hosmer and seeing what Lorenzo Cain has developed into. He's such a good guy, I've known him for a long time. Hes' a guy that has put in the work and finally has a regiment in the off-season to keep his body healthy in the season. He looks like a star - defensively, offensively, hitting third in the lineup.
So I think the two fanbases and their starving nature and the star quality and getting people nationally to understand that these may be underdogs but there are big time players on both of these rosters. I would probably say something like this anyway because I want to pump our coverage, but I do mean it, I don't think you could put together two more exciting baseball teams to watch. The casual fan will have a field day watching this series.
Many thanks to Casey Stern for his time. You can watch the American League Championship Series exclusively on TBS beginning Friday night at 7:00 CT.