The Kansas City Royals may have been nine games better than the Houston Astros in the final regular season standings, but when the two met on the field this summer, the end result was far different. Kansas City struggled to muster much offense against the Astros in their two series this year, limping to a 2-4 record. The Royals were swept just four times this year - one of those sweeps occurred in Houston. If you're looking for optimism heading into the ALDS, you won't find it in the midsummer series at Minute Maid Park.
The Royals were able to avenge some of those losses when the Astros visited Kauffman Stadium in late July. They took two out of three at the K, including a dramatic walk-off in extra innings on July 25. Despite the rebound, the Royals can't consider their season series against the Astros a success. They'll have plenty to improve on as they head into the ALDS. The good news? The Royals have home-field advantage. If the regular season games were any indication, that will mean something.
June 29: Astros 6, Royals 1. Lance McCullers shut down the Royals' bats and Joe Blanton succumbed to the Astros' offense. Salvador Perez provided what little offense the Royals had, blasting a solo shot.
July 1: Astros 6, Royals 5. The offense finally came alive, but it was not enough to avoid the sweep in Houston. Kelvin Herrera allowed the winning run in the bottom of the seventh.
July 24: Astros 4, Royals 0. Scott Kazmir held the Royals scoreless a day after being acquired by the Astros, while Jeremy Guthrie was about as effective as could be expected at this point in the season.
July 25: Royals 2, Astros 1 (10). The Royals walked off on Alcides Escobar's two-out single after a strong performance from Duffy.
July 26: Royals 5, Astros 1. Yordano Ventura shut down the Astros on the same day that the Royals acquired Johnny Cueto. Dallas Keuchel ceded all five of the Royals' runs.
What went wrong
The offense went silent. For four of the six games, the Royals were virtually non-existent at the plate. In two of them — one third of the games! — the Royals could not scratch a run across the plate. Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Scott Kazmir and Scott Feldman were all able to hold the Royals in check with relative ease.
The Astros allowed the fewest runs in the American League this year, so the anemic offense was a result of more than just a fluky cold spell. Strong pitching and solid defense are par for the course in Houston, and in order to overcome the Astros in the ALDS, the Royals will need to find a solution at the plate.
The Astros leveraged their ballpark. Minute Maid Park sees more than its fair share of home runs, and the Astros hit a disproportionate dose of those dingers when the Royals made their annual visit. The Astros teed off five times in the series, a number that is likely only as low as it is because Jeremy Guthrie did not make an appearance.
Home-field advantage will play a key role in the ALDS. While the Royals get to host up to three of the series' five potential games, they will no doubt be looking to steal a win in Houston. To do so, they'll have to neutralize the Astros' advantage at Minute Maid.
The Royals' rotation was ineffective. No Royals starter fared well in Houston. All three allowed four or more runs, as did Jeremy Guthrie in the first game at the K. Most of the blame for the season-series loss can be leveled at the hapless offense, but even when it did show up, the pitching rarely gave it a chance.
There is good news, however. Three of the four starters in the losing efforts are no longer in the Royals' rotation: Joe Blanton was shipped to Pittsburgh, while Danny Duffy and Jeremy Guthrie were shuttled to the bullpen. In the ALDS, the pitching matchups are more favorable for the Royals.
What went right
The bullpen locked down the Astros. The season series wasn't all bad for the Royals. While the starters struggled, the bullpen shined. Relievers allowed just two runs over the six games—Brandon Finnegan gave up one in three innings of cleanup work for Joe Blanton, and Kelvin Herrera also yielded a run (albeit in a more critical situation).
Bullpens can be unpredictable, but the Royals' is an undoubtedly a strength. Being able to shut down the Astros' potent offense is a promising sign for the ALDS.
Lorenzo Cain solved Dallas Keuchel. Royals fans watching last night's Wild Card game may have had flashbacks to Madison Bumgarner after watching Keuchel shut down the Yankees' bats on just three days' rest. Keuchel is one of the best pitchers in the game right now—he started the All-Star game and is firmly entrenched in the Cy Young conversation.
But Lorenzo Cain doesn't care. Cain was 5-for-7 against Keuchel this season, including two doubles and this beauty of a home run.
Kansas City was able to hang five runs on Keuchel in his second outing against the Royals this season. That should give the team plenty to be optimistic about heading into the ALDS.
There's no place like home. The Royals closed the season series with two solid victories at the K. The Astros were shut down and only managed a single run in both games. After four frustrating outings, the Royals were finally able to flip the script on the Astros. By the end of the final series, the Royals held their biggest lead yet in the AL Central and moved to 21 games over .500.
The final two games were something of a cathartic experience for the Royals, who had been hounded by the Astros for the past two years — the Royals were swept in Kansas City last year, when the Astros were far worse.
Yordano Ventura capped the season series with seven innings of one-run ball. It was a turn-around performance for Ventura, who had given up six runs in four innings in his last start and was recently shipped — briefly — to the minor leagues.
It's fitting, then, that Ventura will be on the mound for Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday. If the Royals wanted to focus on the positives to come out of their season series, they could not have made a better choice.