Heading into ALDS Game 3, Royals’ inclination for contact has led to success against aces

Mike Moustakas and the other Royals hitters have had success against a number of opposing aces this season, and hope to get to Houston’s Dallas Keuchel again in Sunday’s Game 3 of the ALDS.
Mike Moustakas and the other Royals hitters have had success against a number of opposing aces this season, and hope to get to Houston’s Dallas Keuchel again in Sunday’s Game 3 of the ALDS. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

The number sticks out like a misplaced data point on a spreadsheet, an outlier in the land of on-base percentage. And if you stare at it long enough, you might be convinced it is a misprint.

During the 2015 season, the Royals struck out just 973 times. That is 134 fewer strikeouts than the next lowest team in the major leagues, and 419 fewer than the Houston Astros, the Royals’ opponent in the American League Division Series. On average, American League teams struck out more than 1,200 times over 162 games this season. The Royals were the only team that didn’t crack 1,000.

[ Royals hope to hand Dallas Keuchel his first home loss of the season ]

Mike Moustakas does not know these numbers, nor does he want to. But he does know the Royals are among the best contact teams in baseball, and as he stood at his locker at Minute Maid Park on Saturday afternoon, he pondered the effects of all those extra balls in play.

All this contact, Moustakas suspects, is one reason the Royals have been so successful against front-line starting pitchers.

“You put the ball in play, good things happen,” Moustakas said, “I think against aces, you’ve just got to try and make contact and keep putting the ball in play and hopefully find some holes.”

As the Royals prepared for Game 3 against the Astros on Sunday afternoon, they also braced for a matchup with ace Dallas Keuchel, he of the 2.48 ERA and 20-8 record and title of All-Star Game starter. The tasking is daunting. On Tuesday night in New York, Keuchel threw six scoreless innings as the Astros took down the Yankees in the Wild Card Game. On Sunday, the Royals must solve Keuchel at a pivotal moment of this five-game series.

But if there is reason for optimism in the Royals’ clubhouse, it is their recent history against No. 1 starters, including Keuchel, who yielded five earned runs in 6  2/3 innings at Kauffman Stadium on July 26.

[ Former Royals manager Trey Hillman, now with the Astros, saw KC’s success coming ]

“I think as a team, we’ve done a good job of executing our game plan against some of these big-name guys,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “And Dallas is no different.”

Keuchel, though, is just one trophy in a season-long collection. During the course of the 2015 season, the Royals defeated former Cy Young winners (Seattle’s Felix Hernandez and Corey Kluber) and a list of future contenders (Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole, Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer and Oakland’s Sonny Gray.)

They took down the White Sox’s Chris Sale in early April and handled St. Louis’ Lance Lynn and John Lackey during the season’s I-70 Series. For reasons obvious and otherwise, the Royals’ blend of speed and contact can become kryptonite for opposing starters.

“They’re definitely unique,” Keuchel said Saturday afternoon. “Because they do put the bat on the ball, but they’re up there swinging.”

Now another date with Keuchel awaits. In the days before the matchup, the Royals outlined a game plan for Sunday. Hosmer would not tip his hand, but after a season of beating quality starters, he said that success has fostered confidence.

“We’ve had a pretty good track record against a lot of good pitchers throughout the year.” Hosmer said. “We’re confident. We’re going to battle either way.”

[ Lorenzo Cain returns to Houston, site of his center-field stumble on Tal’s Hill ]

[ Yordano Ventura will start Game 4 of the ALDS ]

The Star's Andy McCullough and Blair Kerkhoff preview Game 3 of the AL Division Series between the Royals and Astros at 3 p.m. Sunday in Houston (TV: MLB Network). The series is tied 1-1.

Rustin Dodd: