Orioles stick to winning formula

Big eighth inning lets crowd breathe a sigh of relief

  • Nelson Cruz celebrates crossing home plate after hitting a two-run homer in the 1st inning against the Detroit Tigers.
Nelson Cruz celebrates crossing home plate after hitting a… (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore…)
October 02, 2014|Peter Schmuck | The Schmuck Stops Here

It wasn't magic.

It was just Thursday.

OK, it was a Thursday in October, so there already was something special about it, but the Orioles' 12-3 victory in Game 1 of their division series against the Detroit Tigers was just a postseason compilation of all the ways this team has found to win over the course of this amazing and uplifting season.

Nelson Cruz, who was signed in February to be their designated playoff hero, launched a two-run home run in the first inning to find his name mentioned in the same sentence with some guy named Babe Ruth, Chris Tillman ground out five tough innings and the bullpen did what it has been doing with amazing regularity since Day One. Why should anyone be surprised by that?

The sellout crowd could finally breathe a sigh of relief when the Tigers bullpen let the game get out of hand in the eighth inning, but this game was won in the tense middle innings when the Orioles needed to buy some precious time and a little offensive insurance.

The fact that it happened against 18-game winner Max Scherzer, who also was last year's Cy Young Award winner, doesn't change anything, because that's also part of the Orioles' 2014 mystique. They have been beating the best pitchers in the game since Opening Day.

Tillman was on the mound back then, too. He outdueled then-Red Sox ace Jon Lester in the season opener, then came back in his next start and pulled his team out of a four-game losing streak with another clutch performance against former Cy Young winner and American League Most Valuable Player Justin Verlander.

The Orioles seemed to come up big against the big guys and then come up not so big against the rookie pitchers and the guys with 5.00-plus ERAs. Call them contrarians. Call them Team Counter-Intuitive. Call them whatever you want, but don't underestimate them the way the so-called experts did before the season started and the oddsmakers did before the start of this series.

“That's how we do it, man,” said Adam Jones. “We don't care who does it. We just find a way. I think that's how it's been. We just find a way as a team. … There's no answer to what we do. We just somehow, some way, get the job done.”

There is no discounting the importance of winning the first game of this best-of-five series. The Tigers had three Cy Young Award winners lined up, which meant that a loss Thursday night would have put the Orioles in serious danger of going to Detroit on elimination alert. Verlander is set to start Game 2 on Friday, and he has a 7-0 lifetime record at Oriole Park, so there definitely was some extra weight on Game 1.

Not that the Orioles were going to be intimidated by anyone in the Tigers rotation. They beat the Tigers the first time Verlander faced them this season, and they scored five runs against him in a game he eventually won here in Baltimore in the second regular-season series between these teams.

He's a great pitcher, and the Orioles are in for a tough afternoon, but Game 1 was important for a variety of reasons, first and foremost because every odd-numbered game in a best-of-anything playoff series has the feel of a must-win situation. It was also big because of Scherzer's tremendous success the past two seasons and the fact that they figured to face him again if the series goes the distance.

It was only out of character in that the Orioles scored three quick runs in the first two innings instead of waiting around until the middle of the game to get their offense untracked. Cruz, whose postseason credentials include an American League Championship Series MVP performance against the Tigers in 2011, took his first swing of the postseason and hammered an opposite-field two-run homer to carve a quick chunk out of any notion that Scherzer was invincible.

The homer was his 15th in postseason play, tying him with Ruth on the all-time list. Even though they play a lot more postseason games these days, that's some heady company, and that big swing certainly played large when Tillman faltered momentarily and gave up back-to-back solo shots in the second inning.

After that, Tillman battled through the fifth and the bullpen held fast until Scherzer finally blinked again in the seventh. The eighth inning was a ridiculous study in the ongoing struggles of the Tigers bullpen, but it sure was a hoot for the towel-waving orange cloud that surrounded the field.

There's still a long way to go in this series, but the Orioles wasted no time showing how they got here and why they've got a better chance to keep going than a lot of people thought.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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