The best two teams in the American League reached the league championship series in dramatic and bizarre ways, creating some serious momentum for each team.
Now the Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays meet in the postseason for the first time since their epic American League Championship Series in 1985, a series that saw the Royals rally from a 3-1 deficit to advance to the World Series. And if that's not enough, these teams tangled during the 2015 season, seven games that included dustups, beanballs and anger.
Here are five questions.
1. How gritty and tough are the Royals?
Manager Ned Yost said his team started "to believe" after overcoming a four-run deficit against the Oakland A's in the eighth inning of last year's AL wild-card game. That belief carried the Royals to Game 7 of the World Series, then to a runaway division title in the AL Central this year, then to Game 4 of the 2015 ALDS. The Royals were down 6-2 in the eighth inning to the Houston Astros in that game.
Then, doing what the Royals do better than any team in the big leagues, they put the ball in play, strung together five straight singles and wound up winning the game 9-6. They became the first team ever to overcome a four-run deficit in the eighth inning or later, and stave off elimination, two years in a row in the postseason. "We believe in ourselves," Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "The guys on this team have a lot of character."
2. How about the roll the Blue Jays are on?
They were 50-50 after 100 games this season, then proceeded to win 93 games, the most victories ever by a team that was .500 or worse after 100 games. The Blue Jays lost the first two games of the ALDS against the Texas Rangers, then roared back to win the next three, joining the 2001 New York Yankees and the 2012 San Francisco Giants as the only teams ever to lose the first two games of a five-game series at home, then come back to win the series.
And the way they won Game 5 against Texas -- with perhaps the craziest inning, the indescribable seventh, in postseason history -- makes you wonder if divine intervention is going on here. Or maybe it's just a bunch of hungry guys who can really hit and are trying to get the Blue Jays back to the World Series for the first time in 22 years.
3. What is the status of Kansas City's starting pitching?
It's about as reliable as it has been all season. Yordano Ventura, who is scheduled to start Game 2 for the Royals, was 9-2 with a 3.56 ERA in the second half of the season; he has calmed down after a rocky start to the season and is back to throwing in the high 90s with off-speed stuff that he can throw for strikes. He has not been good so far in this postseason -- seven innings pitched, six earned runs allowed in two starts -- but he showed in the postseason last year that the bigger the game, the better he became.
And now he has some help from Johnny Cueto, who pitched the Royals into the ALCS with eight terrific innings -- the fifth pitcher in postseason history to record eight strikeouts and no walks in a winner-take-all game -- in Game 5 of the ALDS against Houston. Cueto retired the final 19 batters he faced, the most ever to end a start in a winner-take-all game in the postseason. Cueto won't be available until Game 3, but it looks as though the old Cueto is back, and, if so, that gives the Royals a legitimate No. 1 starter.
4. What should we expect from David Price?
It is hard to tell. Clearly Blue Jays manager John Gibbson chose Marcus Stroman, who made four starts in 2015, over Price to start Game 5 against the Rangers. Strangely, Gibbons used Price in relief with a 7-1 lead in Game 4, left him in to throw 50 pitches, making him not available -- Gibbons' words -- for Game 5. Price, who is scheduled to start Game 2 for the Blue Jays, has had a tremendous career; he likely will finish second to Dallas Keuchel in the AL Cy Young Award voting this year, but he's never won a postseason game as a starter. He did not pitch well in Game 1 of the ALDS against Texas and became the second pitcher in postseason history (joining Randy Johnson) to lose six starts in a row.
In his postseason career, he is 2-6 with a 5.04 ERA and nine homers allowed in 50 innings. It is impossible to explain what happens to him in the playoffs, but there is still time to change that narrative. That time begins in this series.
5. How does the ninth inning look for each team?
The Royals are in the best hands possible with Wade Davis, who Yost calls "the best reliever in the game." Davis is replacing Greg Holland, who had Tommy John surgery earlier this month. The Royals will miss Holland because he was a critical part of that brilliant bullpen last year, but in the past two seasons, Davis has been remarkable: a 0.97 ERA, 139 ⅓ innings pitched, 71 hits allowed and 187 strikeouts. Against the Astros in the ALDS, he allowed one hit and no runs in four innings. In the past two postseasons, he has pitched 18 ⅓ innings, allowed nine hits and one run, walked three and struck out 25.
The Blue Jays' closer is rookie Roberto Osuna, but he has looked nothing like a 20-year-old in the playoffs. He has shown dominant stuff and tremendous poise. In this postseason, he has thrown 5 ⅔ innings, not allowed a hit or a walk and struck out six. The way he closed out the Rangers, getting the final five outs of Game 5, was beyond impressive.
Blue Jays in seven