BALTIMORE -- There is the little team that could from middle America. There’s the juggernaut from the nation’s capital. There are the two clubs from big-market L.A., and there’s the team with the three Cy Young winners atop its rotation. The Orioles? They have been something of a forgotten team at the start of this postseason, but with one big opening statement in Baltimore, the AL East champs flexed their muscles and showed why they have what it takes for a run deep into October -- even if no one seems to be taking them seriously as World Series contenders.
Nelson Cruz mashed a big two-run home run off Max Scherzer in the first inning and J.J. Hardy added a key solo homer in the seventh before the Orioles poured it on late and turned a tense and taut Game 1 of the Division Series into a laugher Thursday. There is no secret sauce to winning in the playoffs, as sabermetrics research shows that teams with high strikeout pitchers don’t necessarily have an edge in the postseason, nor do clubs with lineups that deploy small ball strategies, nor do teams with postseason experience. But two nights after the Royals bunted their way to a win for the ages to open the postseason, the Orioles won 12-3 with a different, more straightforward brand of offense, and offered a reminder about postseason baseball: Small ball is nice, and sometimes it works. But power always wins.
A team that lives and dies by the home run: this is what the Orioles are in 2014, with 47 percent of their runs during the regular season scored by the long ball. They are not particularly good at getting on base (11th in OBP during the season). They don’t steal bases (dead last in steals), but they can mash. And true to form, the Orioles blasted two home runs off one of the reigning Cy Young winners to ignite the offense.
“I just left too many pitches up,” Scherzer said after the game. “This is a great hitting ballclub. You give them a chance to extend their arms, they can really hit it. I’ve got to find a way to get the ball down. I wasn’t quite able to do that tonight, and I paid for it.”
Scherzer allowed five runs over 7 1/3 innings. He was not terrible, but he was not close to good enough. And if the Tigers are going to the World Series again, if they are going to live up to the franchise’s lofty expectations, Scherzer must be great.
A team with no ace: this is also the Orioles of 2014, a team that posted that third best ERA in the league with a staff with Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, and Bud Norris leading the team in wins. Tillman isn’t Clayton Kershaw, but on this team, he doesn’t have to be. After allowing second inning back-to-back solo home runs to the Martinezes, Victor and J.D., Tillman settled down and retired the next 11 hitters. The right-hander is not a pitcher who will blow the other team away, but he doesn’t need to be on this team where the bullpen -- the one clear advantage the Orioles have over Detroit -- is so strong. Tillman’s night was over after five innings and 105 pitches. He allowed two runs, four hits and struck out six in his first career postseason start. Then, the bullpen took over, with Andrew Miller starting the sixth to face Cabrera, and after walking the man he was traded for in 2007, the tall lefty retired five straight.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter showed why he may be the best in-game tactician of all the managers in this postseason. He deployed Miller, typically used in the seventh, at just the right time and pushed him beyond his normal workload, then turned to Darren O’Day, the staff submariner who allowed a solo home run to Cabrera in his one inning of work, and went with Zach Britton for what looked like would be a (gasp!) four-out save before the Orioles eight-run eighth inning. Tommy Hunter entered in the ninth for mop-up duty. A solid if unspectacular outing from the starting pitcher, strong work from the bullpen: this is the O’s way.
“Things change -- it’s the postseason,” Showalter said after the game, of turning to his relievers earlier than usual. “We’ve talked since the season was over about how this was going to work. They know that it’s all hands on deck.” He added, “A lot of it had to do with the Detroit Tigers and making Chris work so hard for it. A lot of it had to do with that they had three or four days off and were ready to go multiple innings. All those things through the year where you don't get them up and not bring them in a game, you're not double-barreling them and everything. This is the time of the year when you're able to reap some of those benefits, but the bottom line is they’re good pitchers.”
Unlike at most ballparks, in the press box at Camden Yards you are down low to the field, close to the action on the field, almost a part of the crowd. After Tillman struck out Cabrera in the first, the third strikeout of the inning, the orange-towel waving crowd was already roaring with such force that you could feel the ground tremble like a train platform. After Cruz’s two-run homer to right field in the bottom of the inning, the stadium erupted even louder.
In 2012, the Orioles’ last postseason appearance, there was a sense that the team’s mere return to October, after 15 years without playoff baseball in Baltimore, was the accomplishment. The fans expect more this year, and the team that beat the Tigers on Thursday had the look of one that could deliver Baltimore its first World Series title since 1983.
Of course, the Orioles still have a long road ahead of them. Never before has a team rolled out three Cy Young winners in the first three games of a playoff series like the Tigers are doing with Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price. They’ve slain the 2013 Cy Young winner, and now the O’s will now face the Verlander with the diminished velocity. There was much speculation the right-hander would move to the bullpen for the postseason, but instead, amid doubts and questions, the Tigers are counting on him and not Anibal Sanchez in the rotation. A year ago Verlander entered the postseason with the same questions about his effectiveness after a subpar 2013, and then Verlander was brilliant in the postseason.
The Tigers are hoping their old ace can again rise to the occasion. Verlander can’t just be good. The Tigers will likely need him to be great.