BALTIMORE — An eight-run inning naturally changed the narrative of the Orioles’ 12-3 win over the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, but the winning formula was already in place.
A couple home runs, solid starting pitching, and a bullpen as effective as any in the game had put the Orioles in position to seize the opening game of the series before they came to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning. And that’s when Detroit’s biggest weaknesses surfaced in transforming a tightly-contested 4-3 game into a blowout before a maniacal 47,842 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards Thursday night.
No, the formula wasn’t flawless as starter Chris Tillman’s high pitch count chased him after five innings and right-hander Darren O’Day surrendered a solo shot to Miguel Cabrera in the eighth, but manager Buck Showalter made it clear he was going to use his best bullpen assets — the trio of Andrew Miller, O’Day, and closer Zach Britton — to protect the opportunity. With Tillman at 105 pitches, Showalter went right to Miller in the sixth inning with the heart of the Detroit lineup — Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and J.D. Martinez — due up.
The big guns needed to be ready a little earlier than usual.
“We’ve talked to them since the season was over about how this was going to work,” Showalter said. “The way we have normally used them, they know that it’s all hands on deck. And it felt like that spot of their order was good for Andrew. And the next group of guys was good for Darren. I knew that I would pitch Zach in the eighth inning.”
Miller responded with 1 2/3 innings and O’Day got through an inning before allowing the homer to Cabrera. Britton then retired the only batter he faced to conclude the top of the eighth.
We’ll never know if the first-year closer would have pitched a clean ninth for the first four-out save of his career, because the Orioles lineup took advantage of the Tigers’ biggest deficiencies in the bottom half of the inning.
Despite the Tigers owning a more-balanced offense and the last three AL Cy Young Award winners in their rotation, their bullpen and defense lag far behind the Orioles in those areas, which led to their demise in turning a winnable contest into a humbling defeat. Errors by shortstop Andrew Romine and center fielder Rajai Davis didn’t help, but the trio of Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria, and Phil Coke only reinforced the many concerns about the Detroit bullpen throughout the season.
In contrast, the Orioles played crisp defense and allowed only one run in four innings of relief to go up 1-0 in the best-of-five series.
“I feel like everybody’s clicking right now at the same time,” said Miller, who expressed no concerns about bouncing back quickly after matching a season-high 32 pitches. “If you can get the ball to the next guy, we’re going to be in good shape. You trust that you go in there and give it your best until you run out of gas, and Buck asks the next guy to come in and we’re going to be pretty good.”
The offensive explosion in the Orioles’ final turn at the plate made the outcome elementary, but it will be interesting to see how Showalter handles his staff with such a quick turnaround Friday afternoon.
Game 2 starter Wei-Yin Chen will have his work cut out for him against a lineup that hit a league-leading .285 against left-handed pitching in the regular season, making you think the Orioles would be happy if he can give them five or six innings while keeping the score close. You’d imagine Showalter would prefer to stay away from Miller on Friday, but O’Day only threw 16 pitches and Britton five, meaning both will be available on Friday.
Perhaps we’ll see the flame-throwing Kevin Gausman as the change of pace behind Chen to bridge the gap to the late innings and put the Orioles in position to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the series. Whatever the case, Showalter has options in the bullpen unlike Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who probably felt he was only throwing gasoline on the fire that was the bottom of the eighth.
On Thursday night, Baltimore’s biggest strengths and the Tigers’ most painful weaknesses came into focus, and it resulted in a convincing win for the Orioles.
“It’s a different season. It’s a different set of rules,” Showalter said. “Everything is different. Now your team has to make the adjustments, and I think our guys know that. We’ve got to figure out how to win two more games from these guys. It’s going to be tough.”