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Underdog Days

Sorry, K.C.: In the unlikeliest ALCS matchup, it's the O's World Series drought that will end

It's a battle for the soul of baseball.

O.K., that's a stretch. However, the ALCS pitting the Orioles against the Royals is an interesting study in contrasts. Baltimore led the majors in home runs this season, with 211, and scored nearly half their runs—47.8%—on long balls; just two teams since 1950 have been more reliant on the homer to score. Even without suspended slugger Chris Davis—who is serving a 25-game ban and won't be eligible to play until Game 6 of the ALCS, and will almost certainly be left off the roster—the Orioles can quick hang numbers thanks to Adam Jones (29 homers, .469 slugging percentage), Nelson Cruz (40 and .525) and 31-year-old journeyman Steve Pearce, who had 17 career home runs coming into 2014 before going all Gary Roenicke (21 and .556).

Pearce, who had only 338 at bats, would have led Kansas City in home runs. The Royals ranked last in the majors, with just 95 home runs; they are the first team since the 1988 Dodgers to make the playoffs while hitting fewer than 100 homers. They score by singling you to death—only the Tigers hit more one-baggers, and no team put more balls in play—and running the bases like madmen. K.C. led the majors with 153 steals and 189 attempts, an excellent 81% success rate. It's appropriate that the Royals hadn't made the playoffs since 1985, because their offensive approach dates to the 1980s. Or maybe the 1880s.

But power aside, these teams actually have a lot in common. Both play excellent defense, turning balls in play into outs at an above-average rate. Both have starting rotations that don't strike out many batters, instead relying on those defenses to make plays. Both have strong bullpens, with the Royals' late-game trio of closer Greg Holland and setup men Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera one of the most dominant groups in baseball history. They combined for a 1.27 ERA in 2041/3 innings, striking out nearly one in three batters they faced. So far in the playoffs they've given up just two runs in 11 innings of work. The Orioles' bullpen doesn't have the same firepower or gaudy statistics, but Buck Showalter's group gets outs from a mix of pitchers with varied skill sets: sidearmer Darren O'Day's righty-killing sliders, Andrew Miller's power stuff from the left side, closer Zach Britton's power sinkers in the ninth.

Showalter himself may be the biggest difference in this series: As he showed in the Division Series, he understands the level of aggression you need when four losses will end your year. Royals manager Ned Yost gets credit for shepherding a young team that was 48--50 on July 21 to the postseason, but he is at his worst when making in-game decisions. The edge in the dugout will make the difference. Orioles in six.