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Scott Miller's Starting 9 (+3): Storylines, Predictions for 2014 ALCS and NLCS

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 9, 2014

Joy R. Absalon/USA Today

1. First Take: Orioles vs. Royals

Boog's Barbecue vs. Arthur Bryant's? This might be the most delicious ALCS matchup since Bert Campaneris vs. Lerrin LaGrow. I'm salivating already.   

Hard to predict who will emerge, Baltimore's Bangers or Kansas City's Track Team? But I do know that so far, all who have underestimated the Orioles this season are buried somewhere under a large stack of crab cakes. They lose Matt Wieters for the year? Manny Machado? Shrug and keep on winning.   

The Royals are younger and healthier, and both of these clubs are hot. The Orioles own the majors' best record at 53-27 since July 1. The Royals? They went 41-23 beginning on July 22.

The Orioles led the majors with 211 home runs. The Royals piled up more steals than Pretty Boy Floyd, leading the majors with 153. Next closest? The Dodgers with 138.

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

The storylines are terrific. How about the Royals' shutdown lefty reliever Brandon Finnegan, who was pitching for Texas Christian in the College World Series in June, then became the first player in the 2014 draft to land in the majors when the Royals summoned him on Sept. 1? How about Baltimore first baseman Steve Pearce, who was designated for assignment in April, stuck around and wound up with 21 homers for the Birds this year?

"In spring training we talked about where the next thing is coming from and we haven't played with Chris [Davis] and Manny and Matt the whole year," Orioles manager Buck Showalter told reporters after the O's stunned Detroit in the division series. "But that's something we talked about was going to happen.

"This is an opportunity for somebody else to be something that people say they are not."

Sounds like as good a theme for this ALCS as anything, don't you think?

Pick: Orioles in 7.

2. First Take: Cardinals vs. Giants

Tom Gannam/Associated Press

Whether it's Jeffrey (Penitentiary Face) Leonard and Kevin (I Eat Vicks When I Have a Cold) Mitchell vs. Whitey Herzog's rabbits in 1987 or Albert Pujols vs. Barry Bonds in 2002, or Hunter (Hit the Ball Three Times in One Swing) Pence vs. Carlos Beltran in 2012, or the current bunch of Giants and Cardinals, this matchup is guaranteed to be good.

Yes, it is a rerun season over in the NL.

But that doesn’t mean it isn't must-see TV.

This will be the fourth time since '87 the Giants and Cardinals have tangled in the NLCS, including the second time in three seasons. Maybe over the next 10 days the Cardinals will finish what they didn't in 2012.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 07:  Hunter Pence #8 of the San Francisco Giants catches a ball hit by Jayson Werth #28 of the Washington Nationals for an out in the sixth inning during Game Four of the National League Division Series at AT&T Park on October
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

One year after winning the World Series in Tony La Russa's last year as manager, the Cardinals blew a three-games-to-one lead and watched the Giants race toward their second World Series title in three seasons. Maybe Pence and Co. should have thanked St. Louis for kick-starting their momentum: In those final three wins to snatch the NLCS from St. Louis, the Giants outscored the Cardinals by a combined 20-1.

Over seven games during the regular season this year, the Giants outscored the Cards 30-20 while winning four of the seven games. How will these (potential) seven games play out?

Both of these clubs have so much October experience you have to figure it will come down to execution. Don't expect either team to beat itself. Keep a close eye on those Cardinals lefties, Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams, Kolten Wong and Co.: They blasted five home runs against left-handed Dodgers pitching during the division series.

Pick: Giants in 7.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

3. Which Do We See More of in October, Friends Reruns or the Cardinals?

Man, it's close: This is the seventh time in the past 11 seasons that the Cardinals have played in the NLCS. This is Braves-like domination. Matt Holliday has become more familiar than Jennifer Aniston.

4. Missouri: State of Sluggers

Nobody hit fewer homers (95) this season in the majors than the Royals, the only team to not even reach 100.

Nobody hit fewer homers this season in the NL than the Cardinals. At 105, they were even four behind the lowly San Diego Padres.

So explain this:

Oct 5, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer (35) celebrates with designated hitter Billy Butler (16) and right fielder Norichika Aoki (23) after hitting a home run against the Los Angeles Angels in the third inning of g
USA TODAY Sports

None of the eight clubs in the division series hit more homers than the Cardinals, who smashed seven.

None of the eight clubs in the division series have more game-winning homers than the Royals, who beat the Angels in the 11th inning in Game 1 on Mike Moustakas' homer and in the 11th inning in Game 2 on Eric Hosmer's homer. Overall, the Royals finished with four homers in the division series, tied for third among the eight teams.

When Adams drilled his Game 4 homer to sink Kershaw, it was the first home run the Dodgers ace has ever surrendered with his curveball. First. One. Ever.

Overall, Kershaw had surrendered just one homer to a lefty swinger in 143 plate appearances this season. And Adams hit only one homer against a lefty starter all season.

5. More Fun Than Candy Crush

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 22:  Starting pitcher Jake Peavy #22 of the San Francisco Giants shouts as he comes off the field after finishing a scoreless seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on September 22, 2014 in Los Angeles
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Looking for another entertaining game that you can play away from your smartphone? Try this: Count the number of times emotional Giants starter Jake Peavy shouts "Grrrrr!" (or something like that) in the middle of an outing.

The Giants have been almost as tickled with Peavy's brothers-in-arms emotion as they have with his 6-4 record and 2.17 ERA in 12 starts since they acquired him from the Red Sox in late July. Also, after a rough career record in October, he shut out the Nationals over 5.2 innings in Game 1 to set the tone.

Wouldn't it be fun if Peavy matches up against another ex-Boston starter, John Lackey, who pitched the Red Sox to the World Series clincher last fall, to help—among other things—Peavy earn his first World Series ring?

6. The AL Managers: Buck Showalter vs. Ned Yost

This is what it will look like on Twitter and in some toxic quarters of social media: Buck Showalter as Einstein, Ned Yost as Goober.

KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 05:  Manager Ned Yost #3 the Kansas City Royals celebrates on the field after defeating the Los Angeles Angels 8-3 to sweep the series in Game Three of the American League Division Series at Kauffman Stadium on October 5, 2014 in
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Don't let that fool you. Yes, Showalter is a master—and if you would like details, I visited with him two weeks ago. But with Yost, don't believe everything you read. Yes, he is quirky, he likes to sacrifice bunt and his pitching decisions can lead to more head-scratching than a dandruff shampoo commercial.

But the guy has the Royals here for the first time since George Brett was in uniform. Stop the piling on and give the guy some credit.

Edge: Showalter.

7. The NL Managers: Bruce Bochy vs. Mike Matheny

Mark it down: Bochy is Hall of Fame material. I wrote that two months ago, and more and more folks are picking up on it. The guy has led his teams to two World Series titles, he's passed Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda in career wins and he gets the most out of his teams. He schooled Nationals rookie skipper Matt Williams in the division series. Bochy doesn't have a "seventh-inning man." When he needs outs, he goes for the kill.

ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 07:  Manager Mike Matheny #22 of the St. Louis Cardinals looks on from the dugout against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game Four of the National League Divison Series at Busch Stadium on October 7, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

While he doesn’t have the stripes Bochy does, Matheny quickly has proven he's a keeper. This is his third season as St. Louis' manager and third trip to the NLCS. Replacing Tony La Russa? No problem. Steering the Cardinals after the departure of Albert Pujols? A breeze. There are many reasons why St. Louis is a winning organization. Among them, the Cardinals make smart decisions. Hiring Matheny was one of them.

Edge: Bochy.

8. Even Billy Butler Has the Green Light

Well, maybe that's not true. But it did open lots of eyes when the Royals designated hitter swiped second base in Game 3.

So far, Kansas City has stolen 12 bases this postseason. The other nine clubs? They've combined for 11. Know what would be fun? That much-talked-about (in Missouri, at least) I-70 World Series: The Royals Track Club facing Yadier Molina would be worth the price of admission alone.

9. X-Factors

Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

Baltimore: Bullpen matchups. Showalter and Co. kept lefty relievers Brian Matusz and T.J. McFarland off of their division series roster because of Detroit's right-handed emphasis. But Kansas City has several lefty bats who are key: Hosmer, Moustakas and Alex Gordon. Showalter and pitching coach Dave Wallace have been masterful with their bullpen.

Kansas City: The power game. We know the Royals can run. We know they can pick it defensively. We know they can pitch. If Hosmer and Moustakas stay hot, look out. By the way, the last team before Kansas City to play in the postseason after ranking last in the AL in homers during the regular season? The 1959 Go-Go White Sox.

San Francisco: Leadoff hitters. Translated: Gregor Blanco (unless Bochy switches). Angel Pagan is out for the season following back surgery, leaving a gaping hole atop the order. Blanco, batting leadoff in all four games against the Nationals, went 2-for-18 (.111). Of the eight clubs in the division series, San Francisco's leadoff hitter ranked sixth in batting average, on-base percentage (.200) and slugging (.111). Joe Panik has been terrific in the two hole, but the Giants need a leadoff man to get aboard.

St. Louis: Adam Wainwright's arm. There was some question as to whether he would have started Game 5 if the Dodgers had extended the series. He's battled arm issues off and on this year, but Matheny has named Wainwright as St. Louis' Game 1 starter. Key stat: Since Opening Day 2013, Wainwright's 508 innings (postseason included) are more than anybody else in the majors.

10. Too Many Hunters

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 04:  Hunter Strickland #60 of the San Francisco Giants throws a pitch in the eighteenth inning against the Washington Nationals during Game Two of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on October 4, 2014 in Washing
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Most interesting roster decision: whether the Giants keep hard-throwing rookie Hunter Strickland in their bullpen even after he served up three homers in the division series against the Nats (boy, will he be glad not to see Bryce Harper anytime soon).

"Hunter Strickland has the best arm in the playoffs," a rival scout told me during the division series as Strickland regularly hit 100 mph on the radar gun. "He reminds me of K-Rod [Francisco Rodriguez] when he came up."

K-Rod emerged in the '02 postseason as a lights-out setup man for closer Troy Percival, and the Angels won their only World Series.

Strickland? The opportunity is there with Sergio Romo having lost the closer's job and San Francisco's bullpen good but sometimes wobbly.

11. I Wanna Party With That Guy

Candice Choi/Associated Press

Greatest line of the postseason came after Orioles outfielder Delmon Young stroked a three-run, pinch-hit double against Detroit in Game 2 of the division series last week. Given his postseason heroics, someone asked Young if he has ice in his veins.

"No, not really," Young replied. "I might have some Cheetos later."

12. How the Mighty Have Fallen

Random thoughts as we say goodbye to the Dodgers, Nationals, Tigers and Angels:

• Expect it to get ugly very soon in Los Angeles, where either general manager Ned Colletti, manager Don Mattingly or both could lose their jobs. The Guggenheim Baseball Group, owners of the Dodgers, fielded the most expensive team in North American professional sports history (payroll: $236 million) and got bounced in the first round. They are not expected to stay with the status quo. Maybe they blame Colletti for a horrible bullpen. Maybe they blame Mattingly for benching Yasiel Puig in Game 4, or for benching him at all, or for waiting too long to bench him. Only thing left is the body count.

KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 05: Mike Trout #27 of the Los Angeles Angels reacts after batting against the Kansas City Royals in the third inning during Game Three of the American League Division Series at Kauffman Stadium on October 5, 2014 in Kansas City,
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

 Mike Trout, for the very first time, actually looked like a 23-year-old kid. If there is one thing most surprising about this postseason so far, it is that for the first time, we actually watched the pressure get to Trout. He hit .083 in the three-game sweep and looked nowhere close to his usual self at the plate.

 Bryce Harper, for the first time, played as if he was older and more poised than Trout. Harper, 21, smashed three homers in four games for the Nationals and hit .294 after a dreadful .130 in the 2012 playoffs. Lasting impression: It's going to be a whole lot of fun watching Harper and Trout through their careers, and after this postseason, we've got the legitimate beginnings of a good, old-fashioned argument that could last years: Who would you rather have, Trout or Harper?

 The Tigers likely just missed their last, best chance at a World Series for the foreseeable future. Yes, they've got David Price next year. But Miguel Cabrera is aging, Torii Hunter is talking about retiring, Justin Verlander isn't what he once was and, of course, the bullpen was abysmal. As they left the field after Baltimore swept them, it was difficult not to wonder when the next time we'll see them in the ALCS will be.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball @ScottMillerBbl.

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