After a suspense-filled division series, the two league championship series appear to be over at this point. The Kansas City Royals and New York Mets have respectively put the Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago Cubs against the wall, with history not looking kind for the two teams trailing.
The champagne will be on ice in Toronto and Chicago on Wednesday, though it will be waiting for the two road teams to close things out. Being able to clinch early would be a huge relief for the Royals and Mets to line up their rotations and get extra rest before the World Series.
Here's a look at the upcoming schedule for the rest of the postseason, as well as predictions for the rest of the two league championship series:
As dominant as the Royals and Mets have been thus far, nothing that has happened is out of character. Kansas City is winning with effective-enough starting pitching, high-contact hitting and a dominant bullpen. New York has had impressive starting pitching, timely hitting and Jeurys Familia locking down the ninth.
Well...Daniel Murphy continues to rake, but that is one of those weird October anomalies, like Cody Ross in 2010 or Jeff Suppan in 2006.
Nothing in baseball is over until the final out has been recorded, so the Blue Jays and Cubs each have a pulse. Their odds are long, so let's examine what needs to happen for the two trailing teams in their efforts to make comebacks.
The Leadoff Problem
Looking at how the Blue Jays and Cubs have gotten to this point, one area that jumps out is baserunners.
Specifically, the leadoff hitters for Kansas City are torching Blue Jays pitching, while their Cubs counterparts cannot get on base against the Mets.
According to ESPN's Jerry Crasnick, Kansas City leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar is starting off games by putting pressure on Toronto starters:
Escobar is hitting .417 with a .611 slugging percentage in 36 postseason at-bats, and all he did Tuesday was reach base three times and contribute two sacrifice flies. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Escobar is the first player in major league history to hit safely to lead off the first inning in four straight games in a postseason series.
When Royals manager Ned Yost made Escobar his leadoff hitter for the postseason, it seemed like a curious move. The 28-year-old had a .293 on-base percentage during the regular season and owns a .298 mark in eight MLB seasons.
Those numbers are relevant when examining Escobar's value over an entire season, but short playoff series don't always play by normal rules. Kansas City's All-Star shortstop has provided the necessary spark that sets the tone for high-contact hitters like Ben Zobrist, Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer to drive in runs.
The Royals aren't known for having a potent offense but have scored at least five runs in all four ALCS games, forcing Toronto manager John Gibbons to use a bullpen that wasn't deep to begin with and grew even weaker when Brett Cecil was injured against Texas.
In the National League, the Cubs would love to have a chance at getting to New York relievers not named Familia. The problem is, unlike Escobar for the Royals, they aren't getting anyone leading off an inning on base this series, as noted by ESPN Stats & Info:
For all the firepower in Chicago's lineup, this isn't a team that can consistently play small ball. It worked a couple of times in the division series against St. Louis when Joe Maddon used two suicide squeezes in an inning.
However, looking at numbers during the regular season, the Cubs had the fifth-worst batting average with runners in scoring position, according to Yahoo Sports.
Given how reliant the Cubs are on the home run this postseason—three of their five runs in the NLCS have come on solo homers—it's impossible to put together a big inning against the Mets' stellar pitching staff if no one around hitters like Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant is getting on base.
Of course, it's difficult to string together a rally when Matt Harvery, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom combine for this box score line, provided by Peter Gammons of GammonsDaily.com:
As unpredictable as baseball can be, sometimes a series is as simple as saying that "the team with the most dominant starting rotation wins." That's what the Mets have used to move within one win of their first World Series appearance since 2000.
The Comeback Question
The real drama will lie in figuring out if the Blue Jays and Cubs can at least make these series interesting, if not win outright.
As entertaining as it would be for both series to reach a decisive seventh game, history is very much working against Toronto and Chicago.
The Blue Jays have a better chance, because there are eight instances since 1985 in which a team trailing 3-1 has come back to win a series. The most recent example was San Francisco knocking off St. Louis in the 2012 NLCS.
However, looking at what the Royals have done in this series, it's not a realistic proposition. The lineup has eventually figured out all of Toronto's best pitchers. David Price was cruising through Game 2, recording 18 straight outs through six inning after a leadoff single until Ryan Goins let a ball drop in the outfield, and Kansas City score five runs.
Matt Snyder of CBS Sports wrote after the second game that the 2015 Royals appear to have become what the Cardinals were at their very best in past years:
After that unlikely run last season that started with a ridiculous comeback and then an extra-inning win in the wild-card game and continued nearly to a World Series win, they were those guys.
This time around, they were down 2-1 in the ALDS to the Astros, facing a 6-2 deficit with only six outs left. And they came back. They came back in Game 5, too, to win the series.
Even though the Royals don't feature the same punch in their lineup like Toronto, they are so difficult to pitch to because they don't strike out. They struck out a total of 973 times; Atlanta had the second-lowest strikeout total in 2015, going down 1,107 times on strikes.
Home runs are great and make scoring runs easier, but the ability to put the ball in play and force the defense to make a play is a lost art that only the Royals have practiced.
Toronto's lineup looks lost right now, save for that 11-run outburst in Game 3. The Blue Jays have scored a total of five runs in their three losses this series. Playing close games against Kansas City isn't a formula for success, because the Royals relievers are going to win that battle every time.
For the Cubs, it turns out Back To The Future lied to everyone. It's easy to say that they can end their championship misery the same way Boston did, with a historic comeback in the league championship series before sweeping the World Series.
The reality is that the 2004 Red Sox were one of the greatest stories in sports history, but they also made that comeback when New York was starting Jon Lieber, Kevin Brown and Orlando Hernandez in three of the last four games of that series.
The Mets will be able to bring back Harvey, Syndergaard and deGrom for one more start before this series ends, and at least one of them could be available in relief if the series requires them to be used.
Adam Rubin of ESPN New York, citing ESPN Stats & Info, tried to instill some semblance of hope for the Cubs by pointing out their last four-game playoff winning streak:
History and a blind sense of optimism are about all Cubs fans have to latch on to at this point. The Cubs are making the decision to stick with Jason Hammel, who pitched just three innings in Game 4 of the division series, as the starter on Wednesday.
Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports did note that Jon Lester's history on three days' rest is not long or impressive:
Lester has done so twice in the majors, according to STATS LLC, most recently with the Red Sox on the final day of the 2011 regular season. (Yes, that was the game at Camden Yards that completed Boston’s late-season collapse.) Lester turned in a quality start that night — 6 innings, 2 earned runs — but Maddon remains committed to Jason Hammelin Game 4 on Wednesday.
Joe Maddon is essentially turning Wednesday into a bullpen game, which wouldn't be a problem if he didn't just have to do that on Tuesday by using six pitchers after Kyle Hendricks lasted four innings. None of the relievers went more than one inning, but there's a limit to how deep a pen can go on consecutive days.
Things are going so well for Kansas City and New York right now that the only question is when they will clinch their respective series. It would be nice to go against the grain and predict one comeback, but nothing about the way Toronto and Chicago are playing right now suggests it will happen.
If either team is going to make a comeback, I would expect it to be the Cubs. Let's say they win on Wednesday, setting them up for Lester in Game 5 and Jake Arrieta in Game 6. Even coming off two subpar starts earlier in the series, they are still capable of shutting down any lineup.
Toronto, on the other hand, is handing its season over to Marco Estrada in Game 5. He's an extreme fly-ball pitcher, as hitters put the ball in the air 52.3 percent of the time, and working in the hitter-friendly environment of Rogers Centre.
Neither series looks destined to last long, but the Cubs, by virtue of having better starting pitchers on the horizon, are more likely to extend things if they can win on Wednesday.
That said, fans can prepare for a Mets-Royals World Series starting on October 27.
Stats via FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted
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