The one thing Detroit Tigers fans probably fear more than anything else happened Thursday night. The Baltimore Orioles got into the Tigers’ bullpen at all, never mind while holding a one-run lead.
The one thing Orioles fans knew above all else going in was that their power game was probably their most obvious asset, assuming they didn’t run into pitchers who could tie them up. Who knew the Orioles could perform any impression of the Kansas City Royals, never mind the one they performed in the bottom of the eighth, after homering their way for the most part to that one-run lead?
If you missed the game and caught the score, but noticed the Orioles winning 12-3 to open their American League division series, you probably asked before sitting down to read or hear the fine details, “OK, who hit them out off whom?” But you may have needed smelling salts after seeing that the Orioles hung up an eight-spot in the eighth without a single ball clearing the fences.
And if you were looking for Tiger shortstop Andrew Romine after the game, you might have had to look in several latibules to find the one into which the usually unspectacular but capable shortstop probably wanted to crawl.
The Baltimore eighth started with Romine spearing a bullet liner for an out and ended with him picking off a ground out with the greatest of ease. Where it ramped into Oriole overdrive was when Romine absolutely misplayed a none-too-tough hopper into a run scoring from second and the mere beginning of the Tigers’ humbling.
Tiger manager Brad Ausmus wanted only one thing from starter Max Scherzer: keep the Tigers in the game as late as absolutely possible. Ausmus is too kind to admit it but it’s not unlikely that in his heart of hearts he might have begun dreading the call to the bullpen as dearly as opposing hitters look forward to it.
Scherzer got into the eighth in the hole by one run, the Orioles taking a 4-3 lead with nothing but the long ball, almost. Except for Nick Markakis’s RBI single in the second, that score was produced by home runs, Nelson Cruz (two run shot) in the first, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez back to back in the second, J.J. Hardy in the sixth, and Miguel Cabrera in the top of the seventh.
For a moment it looked as though Scherzer would hang on for one more full inning’s work, when Markakis lined out sharply to shortstop Andrew Romine. But Alejandro de Aza hit an 0-1 pitch right out over the plate for a double that two-hopped the wall off the warning track, and Ausmus decided right then and there that he had no choice. Scherzer was gassed.
“I just left too many pitches up,” the defending Cy Young Award winner said after the game. “This is a great-hitting ballclub. You give them a chance to extend their arms, they can really hit it.” What the Tigers didn’t bargain for was, you give the Orioles a chance to extend their legs while getting their arms out just so, and they can really run and gun it, too. Scherzer was about to have a ringside seat to see for himself.
So Ausmus brought in Joba Chamberlain, who had a decent second half after a none-too-sterling first half. Once a Yankee prospect turned into a pitching basket case when that organisation couldn’t make up its mind what he was, Chamberlain threw a 1-1 pitch to Adam Jones that had ground out signed on it. Romine ambled over to field it, but as he brought his hand over his glove the ball bumped off the glove heel and far enough behind that de Aza scored without breaking sweat.
That miscue gave the Orioles a rare set of bragging rights. It isn’t any team that can batter or pry five runs in one game out of Scherzer. But it also gave Romine—who’d lost the starting job earlier in the season only to regain it when he began hitting with some authority again down the stretch—a ferocious case of temporary self-loathing. ”
“C’mon, man, everyone makes errors,” the former Angel said after the game, after a reporter noted he looked like a man who’d been fleeced in broad daylight after the play. “I’m not going to be happy about it. Nobody is going to be happy about making errors. I’m obviously upset that I did. But errors happen. Otherwise we wouldn’t have that stat.”
Then with Cruz taking ball one low Jones broke for second and stole it around a low throw to second as though he’d been preparing all his life for that kind of chance. And then he broke on the pitch as Cruz spanked a ten-hopper up the pipe. Who knew? The Orioles can go Road Runner at will, too!
That ended Chamberlain’s brief evening in favour of Joakim Soria. He barely had time to rub up the ball after his warmup tosses when Steve Pearce lined a single up the pipe, practically straight over the path of Cruz’s spanker, and Cruz hustled to third with Pearce taking second after the throw in snuck past third baseman Nick Castellanos.
Soria then gave Hardy first on the house to load the bases and try convincing Ryan Flaherty to dial any area code on the other end of which was a double play. All he convinced Flaherty to do was smack the first pitch and line it to left for an RBI single.
Nick Hundley’s RBI ground out wasn’t exactly destined to slow down the Oriole merry-go-round. Jonathan Schoop took a strike, fouled one off, then hit a liner toward the line in right for a two-run double, which meant exit Soria and enter Phil Coke—he of the affected fierce countenance and mannerisms and a .299 batting average against on the regular season that exposed him as a pussycat in a Tiger skin.
Coke threw ball two to Markakis so low and hard that it practically ran away from Tiger catcher Alex Avila, letting Schoop help himself to third, then walked Markakis four pitches later. Up came deAza. He looked at a high and tight ball one, fouled off a pair, looked at a low breaking ball and a fastball in the dirt, then decided, “Enough of this nonsense!” and sent a high liner toward the gap in right center for a double to send home Schoop and Markakis.
Finally, Coke lured Jones into the inning-ending ground out. To the man whose mishanded error ripped the door off the hinges in the first place. Were the Orioles wondering suddenly where they found their capability of playing the next best thing to absolute small ball?
“Our style isn’t conventional,” Jones admitted after the game. “We hack, and sometimes we look like we have no idea what we’re doing at the plate. But at some point in time, it clicks. We had good at-bats the entire game off Scherzer and their bullpen. If you make hard contact, something is probably going to happen.”
The Tigers would have needed to chloroform Tommy Hunter, the third Oriole reliever on the night, to have a prayer in the ninth. Avila singled with one out, Romine singled with two out, pinch hitter Eziquiel Carrera walked to load the pads, but the Tigers barely had a chance to say their prayers when Hunter swished Ian Kinsler to end it.
And to think that the Tigers’ bullpen managed to incinerate this game without so much as Joe Nathan, the vulnerable closer, poking his nose out of his hole even once.
The Orioles didn’t have that kind of problem. When Chris Tillman, who’d started and pitched respectably once he shook off the Tiger bombs, ran empty in the fifth, manager Buck Showalter reached for Andrew Miller, who’d missed last year’s postseason with the Red Sox thanks to a foot fracture and went to the Orioles at the non-waiver trade deadline this year.
Miller, Darren O’Day, and closer Zach Britton held fort, even though Britton was brought in to hold those Tigers in the top of the eighth in anticipation of the four out save he wouldn’t have to try to make.
It’s the Tigers who seem to need saving most now, and from themselves. And they’re hoping to even things up Friday with something they haven’t had much of this season thanks to a slower-than-expected recovery from offseason core muscle surgery: a Justin Verlander masterpiece of the type you used to think was pre-guaranteed.