5 Critical Questions That Will Decide The American League Championship Series

Believe it or not, there is this odd contingent of people who say baseball is not exciting.

Yet, for this strange subsect of dissenters, the American League playoffs thus far has made a regular point of proving them regularly not just wrong, but downright mentally stunted. It can be argued thus far that the treks of the Toronto Blue Jays and Kansas City Royals toward the American League Championship Series have been the most exciting games played in the last few decades of the sport.

Between the incredible, series-saving, comeback heroics of the Royals in Game 4 of their Division Series matchup with the Houston Astros, where over 40 minutes of one half-inning they ate up a four-run deficit and eventually turned it into a soul-crushing, 9-6 victory. This returned the series to KC, where a finally resurrected Johnny Cueto twisted the rest of the knife in the Astros’ side and sent the Royals to a second consecutive ALCS.

But even that paled in comparison to the extent of dramatics that the Blue Jays reached to find themselves where they currently stand, which is their first ALCS since the beginning of the Clinton administration (or, more accurately, the Campbell administration, for our friends up north). The Jays, who failed to win either of the first two home games in the series they hosted, staged a furious three-game comeback, starting by taking both games in Arlington over the Texas Rangers.

Yet the game that will remain in postseason lore was the decisive Game 5, which saw one of the craziest innings of all time, marred by obscure rule challenges, incredible impacts made by errors and ultimately one of the most memorable series-clinching home runs of ever launched by Jose Bautista.

And while it is arguable about whether the ball or his inconceivably incredible bat flip landed farther away, what's certain is that the American League Championship Series will see the league’s top two clubs face off in a matchup of as different styles as could be imagined.

The speed, pitching and defense-reliant Royals will pit their swarming will against the power conduit that is the Blue Jays, in a series that, if it stays the course of how both clubs arrived in it, could provide entertainment akin to the level of an “Avengers” sequel.

With that, here are the promised five factors that will go into deciding where this rematch of the same clubs from the ALCS 30 years prior (which KC won en route to its only World Series, by the way) will decide itself.

1) Can Kansas City keep pace with a Toronto offensive explosion?

The quick answer here is no, because there is no team that can stand up in a slug fest with these Blue Jays. While the Jays hit only .228 as a team in the ALDS, they began to come to life on the second half the series and finished with a lot of life at the series’ climax. Bautista’s bomb sparked life back into club, and if the Jays’ full ensemble wakes up — Ben Revere, Chris Colabello, Edwin Encarnacion and Ben Revere all hit .300 versus Texas, while Josh Donaldson and Bautista both clubbed a pair of home runs — watch out.

What the Royals can do, however, is play their game of steady run production, smart at-bats, and create advantageous opportunities and pile on a number of runs at a time by keeping the base paths busy. Offensively, this truly is a “Tortoise and the Hare” matchup.


2) Can the "wrap around" on the Royals keep feeding Morales?

Unlike most teams, KC’s power sources are grouped toward the bottom half of its lineup, with Kendrys Morales, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez inhabiting the 5-7 slots of the order. However, this allows the Royals the unique ability to restart their lineup several times, with Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain all functioning in "kick-start" roles sprinkled throughout the lineup.

With Ben Zobrist and Alex Rios sprinkled within, the key to the relentless nature of the Royals is causing havoc between the 8-3 slots and then hammering it home starting with Eric Hosmer and delivering a full plate for Morales to feast on. This arrangement has done its job so far, and if it continues to get improving returns from Hosmer and Gordon, it could be equally as imposing as the Jays' offense, albeit in a much different way.

3) Can Russell Martin slow the KC pace of play?

While the Blue Jay pitching will share a sizable part of the load in limiting the Royals’ offense, much of responsibility will also fall on the shoulders of catcher Russell Martin. KC likes to run and kick-start its offense by staying busy on the bases. Conversely, Martin is one of the best in the business at cutting down would-be base thieves, tying for the MLB-best this past season with a 44% kill rate.

While much of the strength of the Royals is getting from first to third or second to home, there is a lot that Martin can do to cut off KC’s potential offense at the hip if he stays the course

4) Is Johnny Cueto is truly "back"?

Cueto’s stay in the AL had been one of varied returns headed into the postseason. He struggled to a 4-7 record with a 4.76 ERA in Royals blue, after posting his more traditional rate of a 2.62 mark with seven wins back in the National League.

But he seemed to put his AL woes behind him in two Division Series starts vs. Houston, which he capped with a masterful performance en route to the series-clinching win, allowing two hits over eight innings and no runs after the second frame.

If Cueto can carry this form into Toronto for Game 3 of the ALCS, as well as potentially Game 6 or 7, it will give the Royals a much needed answer to the Jays’ Marcus Stroman, who has been electric since returning from an Achilles injury that started his season in September.

This is the part of the year that Cueto was acquired to create an advantage in, and the fact he is finally showing life is a huge pivot point for the Royals' road chances.


5) Can either team take the opposing crowd out of it?'

Tis the season for the X-factor, and each home crowd is decisively one working in each club’s favor. The fan bases for each of these long-starved postseason clubs WANTS IT, and they make it resoundingly known.

This can play out to be a major advantage for either team making a surge in the game or trying to hold one off. It will be important for Kansas City to continue to make the most of its time at Kauffman Stadium, where the Royals are 8-3 over the past two postseasons and carried a .630 regular-season win percentage as well.

The people of Toronto have rallied behind the Jays in the same fashion that the Royals’ crowd did behind their sudden postseason run last year — and have made the Rodgers Centre a true 49,000-person boom room that will host the bookends of the series.

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