8:07 PM EST, FOX – Line: San Francisco – 106
If someone had told you back in April that the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals would be facing off in the World Series, you would have probably enjoyed a good laugh, but six months later that is precisely what has happened, as the Royals host the Giants in Game One from Kauffman Stadium. Honestly, it isn’t really far-fetched to see the Giants (88-74) in this position, as Bruce Bochy’s club has advanced to their third World Series in the past five years, hoisting the ultimate prize in both 2010 and 2012. Granted, they were an unlikely champion in both of those cases, and heading into the 2014 Playoffs they were designated as far from favorites; after getting off to a blistering 43-21 start to the campaign, San Francisco was fairly mediocre the rest of the way, going 45-53 since June 8th. Hell, they even dropped nine of their final fifteen games of the season, but were fortunate enough to back into the National League Wild Card Playoff, where they miraculously pummeled the Pirates in Pittsburgh (8-0), before going on to edge the top-seeded Washington Nationals in four games, and later the reigning National League Champion St. Louis Cardinals in five contests. Their performance in the NLCS was dominated by their Pitching Staff, which relegated the Cardinals to a .233 Batting Average, while posting a collective ERA of 3.20 and 1.133 WHIP. The Batting Order also came alive, tagging St. Louis for 42 hits over the five outings, batting a solid .253 with eight doubles and three home runs.
With five days off, Bochy is pulling no punches as he sends Madison Bumgarner (18-10, 2.98 ERA) to the mound to make his fourth start of this postseason, fresh off of his series-clinching performance in Game Five of the NLCS last Thursday. Emerging as the clear ace of a veteran rotation, Bumgarner has been simply dominant in these Playoffs; the big 25-year old left-hander has earned a 2-1 record in four starts in the month of October, owning a 3.08 ERA and a 1.139 WHIP, while racking up 20 strikeouts to just four walks over 26.1 innings of labor. In the Wild Card Playoff at Pittsburgh, he handled the Pirates with ease, striking out ten in a Complete Game Shutout, followed by 4-1 loss in Game Three of the NLDS in which he allowed three runs on six hits in seven innings, with six strikeouts. However, he was excellent against the Cardinals, wiping the floor with the reigning league champions on his way towards earning NLCS MVP honors. In Games One and Five, Bumgarner fanned a dozen batters while walking just three, all the while yielding just three runs on nine hits over 15.2 innings of work. Now, he serves as a unique blend of youth and experience, making his third World Series start at the age of 25. And for those inquiring minds, this kid has been damn good in the Fall Classic, winning both starts, while tossing fifteen scoreless innings, with fourteen strikeouts, four walks, and a ridiculous 0.600 WHIP. Seriously, Bumgarner has permitted just five hits in those starts. Look for him to utilize his Fastball and Curveball throughout tonight’s contest; when throwing the former up in the Strike Zone, opponents have batted a mere .107, while the latter has resulted in just three hits in 24 at-bats with thirteen strikeouts. That last figure could prove to be particularly significant, given Kansas City’s .503 OPS in plate appearances ending in such a pitch, the lowest percentage in the American League.
Meanwhile, if the Giants were an unlikely candidate to make it to this point, then the Kansas City Royals (89-73) must have been the longest of longshots. After all, this is a franchise that not only hasn’t won a World Series since 1995, but hasn’t even been to the postseason since that year. So is it any wonder that Ned Yost’s club has made such an impression making up for lost time? After a slow start to the campaign, the Royals got hot during the second half of the season, going 19-10 in the month of August, followed by a 15-11 record in September, propelling them into the American League Wild Card Playoff against the Athletics. Behind a raucous home crowd at Kauffman Stadium, the hosts rallied back from three separate deficits before finally earning a 9-8 victory in twelve innings. From that point, they continued to ride a wave of momentum into the ALDS where they comfortably disposed of the top-seed Angels in a three-game sweep, neutralizing their opponent’s potent lineup on just .173 hitting and six runs. And finally, it was more of the same against Baltimore, whom they toppled in four consecutive contests, silencing the Major League leaders in home runs; Kansas City relegated arguably the most powerful lineup in the Majors to a .217 Batting Average and a pair of home runs, as their Bullpen shut the O’s down throughout, yielding only four earned runs. However, the biggest takeaway from this entire postseason has been the Royals’ sudden power surge; in a season in which they posted the least amount of homers in the league (95), Yost’s charges have tagged eight home runs in eight postseason outings, including four against the Angels and Orioles apiece.
With that said, pitching is what indeed wins championships, and the Royals are flush (no pun intended) with quality arms. Chief among them is James Shields (14-8, 3.21 ERA), who will take the mound tonight in his fourth start of these Playoffs. Shields, whom earned the moniker “Big Game James” from his time with the Rays, is easily the most experience member of what is a young rotation, making him Yost’s clear first choice to kick off the World Series. The 32-year old right-hander has made nine career postseason starts, but hasn’t been quite as solid as he has throughout the Regular Season; in those nine starts, Shields has accumulated a 3-4 record with a 5.19 ERA, allowing 30 runs on 61 hits, with 40 strikeouts yet 13 walks, and a WHIP of 1.470. That trend has continued this October, with ten runs on 21 hits allowed in sixteen innings thus far, though racking up fifteen strikeouts to five walks. The key will be keeping his pitches low in the Strike Zone, particularly his Changeup, which has been his most effective pitch. On the season, 34.0% of Shields’ 180 strikeouts ended in a Changeup low in the Zone, allowing a Batting Average of .190. However, when such pitch strays into the upper regions of the Strike Zone, that Batting Average Against has ballooned to .341. So once again, folks, it’s all about location, location, location. Fortunately, for Shields and Yost for that matter, the Bullpen has been otherworldly during these Playoffs. During the Regular Season, Kansas City’s Relievers went 28-17 with a 3.27 ERA and 53 Saves, a 1.237 WHIP and 8.7 Strikeouts per Nine Innings. But during this magical postseason run they’ve turned up the dial, going 6-0 in eight games with seven Saves, allowing just seven runs on 20 hits over 34.0 innings of work, with 36 strikeouts. Greg Holland has been particularly dominant as the Closer, posting a 1.13 ERA and six Saves in these Playoffs, with a 1.000 WHIP, ten strikeouts and five walks.