Here are the keys for the Royals and Astros if they hope to win the American League Division Series.
Three keys to a Royals victory
Take a lead by the seventh inning
If the Royals are leading after six innings they can hand the ball to the best relievers in their bullpen and the Astros will have a tough time coming back. In playoff baseball — with all the off days built in — the same thing might be true after five innings. If the Royals are leading in the later innings, the Astros will have to score runs against one of the best bullpens in baseball and that shouldn’t be easy.
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When playing in Houston, Royals pitchers need to keep fly balls in center field
The Houston Astros finished second in home runs in the American League and the short corners in Minute Maid Park made a lot of those home runs possible. The Crawford Boxes in left field are only 315 feet from home plate, so a routine fly ball to left in Kauffman Stadium is a dinger in Minute Maid. The right-field foul pole is 326 feet away from the dish so the right-field corner also presents an inviting target.
The only part of Minute Maid that’s bigger than the K is center field. Houston’s fence is 436 feet away, but center field also includes Tal’s Hill; the incline that the Astros are going to remove next season. (I’m guessing teams around the league have gotten tired of holding their breath every time one of their center fielders had to run up the hill at full speed.)
So if you have a center fielder that can fly — and the Royals have a couple — a pitcher can use that part of the field. A fly ball to center can be run down and caught, but don’t let the Astros pull a fly ball toward a corner.
Find a hittable fastball and don’t miss it:
Houston’s ace Dallas Keuchel pitched against the Yankees on Tuesday night and, if you paid attention to the count, you saw that New York hitters were more likely to get a fastball in counts like 2-0, 2-1 and 3-1. If Keuchel got ahead in the count, Yankee hitters were seeing sliders, cutters and change-ups.
So when a Royals hitter gets a hittable fastball, he needs to get it in play; take it or foul that fastball off and off-speed pitches become more likely — and the Royals would rather hit fastballs.
Three keys to an Astros victory
Shut down the Royals running game:
If Astros pitchers can deliver the ball to home plate in 1.3 seconds or less, most of the Royals will have a tough time stealing second base. But if the Astros pitchers are shutting down the Royals running game, Kansas City hitters will be told not to let a hittable fastball go by; don’t take it while waiting for the runner to steal second — he isn’t running.
If a Kansas City batter gets a hit with a runner on first base, don’t be surprised if that hit comes on a fastball thrown out of a slide step. The Royals finished with the third-highest team batting average in the AL and the threat of the stolen base is one of the reasons why.
Throw strike one, then expand the zone:
Royals hitters are not patient. If a pitcher gets strike one on a KC hitter, that hitter isn’t likely to take a called strike two. So if an Astros pitcher can locate a first-pitch borderline fastball or throw a get me-over-curve for a strike, after that Royals hitters will go into swing mode. Once the hitters are in swing mode, throw pitches just off the plate and Royals hitters will tend to chase those pitches.
Grab an early lead:
We’re back where we started; the Astros need to grab an early lead and avoid having to come back against Wade Davis and the rest of the relievers in the Royals bullpen. Both teams need to score early and the team that gets that done will have a better chance of winning the game.