For Washington, Anaheim, Kansas City and San Francisco, the first week of the 2014 Major League Baseball postseason has been heart-stopping and confounding for many different reasons.
Kansas City — a franchise that has struggled for the past 29 years to reach the postseason — has advanced to the American League Championship Series, solidifying the franchise’s its greatest week since the fall of 1985. In that year, the Royals won three straight games to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games and capture the World Series.
Meanwhile, for Washington and Anaheim, the spring and summer of hope have quickly turned into the fall of despair. It was only one week ago that the Nationals and Angels were considered favorites to appear in the World Series. Now the Nationals are on the brink of elimination, while the Angels were swept out of the playoffs by the Royals. Many Angels and Nationals fans are wondering what went wrong and how their teams went from the two best to being routed.
Washington’s struggles against San Francisco are eerily similar to Anaheim’s against Kansas City. At 4.77 runs per game, the Angels had baseball’s best offense, while the Nationals averaged only 4.23 runs per game, they had the highest run differential in the National League.
However, in 36 and 31 innings of baseball, respectively, the Nationals have plated just seven runs, while the Angels only scored six in their three-game series. But it is worse than that. Of the 13 total runs the Nats and Angels have scored, six are the result of solo home runs; in a combined 67 innings, the top two offensive teams in the majors have only been able to manufacture 13 runs, or just 1.74 runs per game.
Meanwhile, their opponents, the Royals and Giants, are producing. The Royals hit 95 home runs the entire season— the fewest in baseball by far — but they manufacture runs the old-fashioned way: they bunt, they get small hits and they run. In its wildcard game against Oakland, Kansas City stole seven bases and 13 of its 15 hits were singles. Similarly, the Giants stole two bases and relied on 12 hits, 10 of which were singles, in their Game 1 3-2 win over Washington.
Teams that can run well essentially turn singles into doubles with their base stealing prowess, taking the pressure of having to hit home runs off of the rest of the lineup. The sudden inability to hit for power struck the Nationals and Angels stars. Surely the Giants and Royals pitching staffs deserve a bulk of the credit, but even great pitching doesn’t fully explain how Los Angeles and Washington have gone a combined measly 4-for-43 with runners in scoring position in their series. The heart of the Angels’ offense, center fielder Mike Trout and first baseman Albert Pujols both batted under .200 in their three losses, and left fielder Josh Hamilton went 0-for-13 against Kansas City. Without their power hitters producing, their lineups struggled to beat their small-market counterparts at their own game. In Los Angeles’ case, this ineptitude has already resulted in elimination.
The inept offenses of Washington and Los Angeles have essentially squandered amazing pitching from their starters and bullpen. In nearly 10 innings of work during its 18-inning Game 2 loss Saturday, Washington’s bullpen gave up only three hits. Unfortunately, one of those hits was the game-winning home run by Giants first baseman Brandon Belt.
The worst-kept secret of the postseason so far is the Kansas City pitching staff. In their total of 12 bullpen innings over the course of their three-game series sweep, the Royals relievers allowed just four hits, nine baserunners, and one run. Clearly, pitching and defense are why they’re in the playoffs to begin with.
Complementing their top-ranked bullpen, the Royals are also playing extraordinary defense. Center fielder Jarrod Dyson’s stellar throw to nab Angels runner Collin Cowgill at third base shifted the momentum of Game 2, and added to a host of other acrobatic plays by the defense, including four highlight-worthy diving catches by right fielder Lorenzo Cain over the course of the series.
Though the Royals and Giants may lack the broad national appeal of Los Angeles and Washington, any fan can appreciate their tenacity and high level of fundamental execution, as well as the passion and joy that is evident in their play. Take some time to appreciate this magical postseason, because if the first week was any indication, it is going to be a memorable and exciting October for baseball fans.
Mike Ippolito is a sophomore in the College. The Water Cooler appears every Tuesday.