The Orioles' primary formula for victory this season has been to keep the game close until it becomes a battle of the bullpens. It worked most of the year and then unfolded perfectly in the American League Division Series.
In all three ALDS games, the Orioles waited out the Detroit Tigers' Cy Young Award-winning starters and then pounced on the club's soft underbelly relief corps.
It won't be so easy in the AL Championship Series, which begins with Game 1 against the Kansas City Royals on Friday night at Camden Yards. Because the Royals' bullpen can match manager Buck Showalter's group explosive arm for explosive arm.
"Everybody [in the Royals' bullpen] throws 95 mph there. They have a lot of guys that, if they were just throwing fastballs, it would be one thing, but they all have good secondary pitches," Orioles veteran sidearmer Darren O'Day said. "[The Orioles' relievers] all do different things. Nobody throws a straight fastball, everybody's got two quality pitches, at least, if not three. I think the way Buck uses each different look and each different guy is very advantageous for us."
The power of Kansas City's bullpen versus the versatility of the Orioles' should make for a series that could be decided early in each game since the relievers don't often break.
"I think if you look at the series, it's not crazy to think that the majority of these games will be decided in the first part of each game," former Orioles and current Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie said. "Whoever can get out to an early lead or an early start probably has an upper hand in finishing off the game."
The Royals arguably have baseball's most dynamic seventh-eighth-ninth inning combination. All-Star closer Greg Holland has been successful in 46 of 48 save attempts and posted a 1.44 ERA and a .170 opponents' batting average this season. Set-up man Wade Davis struck out 109 batters in 72 innings and had a 1.00 ERA.
Kelvin Herrera, who had been nursing a right forearm strain recently, posted a 1.41 ERA in 70 regular-season games while stringing together a scoreless streak of 30 2/3 innings from late June until mid-September. And it was just the second-longest on the team; Davis threw 31 2/3 scoreless innings during roughly the same time period.
"All we're trying to do is get up by one run," Kansas City third baseman Mike Moustakas said. "If we get up by one run in that game, you've got to face Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and good luck to that. Those guys have been absolutely lights out for us."
Kansas City's bullpen ERA was 3.30 in 2014, fifth in the AL. But the Royals' mark was skewed by some middle relievers who didn't make the postseason roster.
The left side of the bullpen has been reworked with starter Danny Duffy temporarily moving there, Brandon Finnegan — the club's first round pick in June — hopping up from Double-A, and diminutive Tim Collins promoted from Triple-A in September.
Combined, the Royals bullpen allowed just five runs (2.37 ERA) in its four playoff games and just one earned run in 12 innings in a three-game ALDS sweep of the Los Angeles Angels.
"It's been the difference for us as pitchers to have those guys come in consistently when we have the lead and close out the game for us. It's put us in the position we are in," Guthrie said. "As a team, we're not in the playoffs, we're not playing for a chance to go to the World Series without the bullpen and without how well they pitched all season."
The same can be said for the Orioles, who had the third-lowest bullpen ERA, 3.10, in the AL.
Left-hander Zach Britton had a 1.65 ERA and converted 37 of 41 save chances during the regular season after taking over the closer's role May 15 — in Kansas City, coincidentally. He's two-for-two in the postseason. Tommy Hunter lost the closer's job, but he had another strong season, posting a 2.97 ERA in 60 2/3 innings. O'Day was among the best set-up men in baseball with a 1.70 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 68 games.
And left-hander Andrew Miller may be the best of all of them. Acquired at the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline from the Boston Red Sox, Miller allowed three runs in 20 innings with the Orioles, striking out 34 batters. He has retired 10 of 11 hitters in the postseason so far.
The Orioles also moved 23-year-old fireballer Kevin Gausman from the rotation to the bullpen, which also potentially includes three other relievers with more than 50 innings pitched and a ERA less than 3.50: left-handers T.J. McFarland and Brian Matusz and right-hander Brad Brach.
"They've got a great bullpen over there, and we're just as good, if not a little better," McFarland said. "It's going to be a great bullpen matchup, for sure, because both bullpens have shutdown guys in the late innings. So it's going to be interesting."
Obviously, both are exceptionally good — but which one is better? It depends on who you ask. And it's a tough call, regardless.
"They're really close," ESPN.com senior baseball writer Jerry Crasnick said. "If Kelvin Herrera is healthy, I'll give a slight edge to the Royals because of the emergence of Brandon Finnegan from the left side. But Baltimore's 'pen might be deeper, and Buck Showalter is as good as anyone at generating advantageous matchups. Andrew Miller is an absolute monster."
One major league talent evaluator who has scouted each team extensively said he would choose the Orioles' bullpen, primarily because he likes the different looks the club can provide, from O'Day's sidearm flips to Miller's and Hunter's heat on each side of the mound to Britton's bowling ball sinker.
"I would say I will take the Orioles. They have the down-under guy [O'Day], and you can sandwich him in between two lefties. And Miller is a dominating force now," the scout said. "I would just give the edge to the Orioles because of the variety of different guys."
The scout also said he has some trepidation about Kansas City's left-handed side of the bullpen, since Finnegan is new to the major leagues, Collins just came back and Duffy isn't a traditional reliever. The scout loves what he has seen of Finnegan — one run in seven regular-season innings and one more in four postseason innings. But he is just months removed from pitching for Texas Christian University.
"They are expecting a lot from Finnegan — and he's just a kid. I'm not saying he can't do it," the scout said. "But you are asking a lot of someone who hasn't done it."
This best-of-seven series matches power versus speed and two solid starting staffs and two excellent defenses. But, in the end, the best bullpen may take one team into the World Series.
"It's going to be tight for sure, that's what playoff baseball is about," O'Day said. "You only have the best teams left. So I expect them to be all close games and, naturally, the bullpens get involved in close games."