Breaking down the American League Division Series matchup between the Orioles and Tigers, which begins Thursday at Camden Yards:
How they got here
Tigers: They had to scratch and claw to win their fourth straight American League Central title. The Tigers were 90-72 this season and didn't secure the division until they won Sunday. They may have the most formidable rotation in baseball, with the last three AL Cy Young Award winners. Their offense isn't shabby either, with the specter of two-time reigning AL Most Valuable Player Miguel Cabrera always looming.
Orioles: They've been a model of consistency most of the season, plugging along solidly in the first half and then kicking it up after the All-Star break, winning at a .647 clip in the second half. Their 96-66 record is their best since 1997, which is also the last time they won the AL East title. Nothing stands out about this club. It's just a well-rounded team that knows how to win close (32-23 in one-run games) and late (14-6 in extra innings).
Keys for success
Tigers: Just be the Tigers they are supposed to be. There's probably no team in baseball — certainly not in the AL — that has Detroit's talent. The Tigers' on-base and power abilities, especially from the top half of the lineup, are formidable, and the rotation could be legendary. But they have the feel of underachievers, and the Orioles aren't intimidated despite losing five of six head-to-head games this year (all before May 15).
Orioles: Chase the Tigers' starters as early as possible. Detroit's soft underbelly is its bullpen, which just happens to be the Orioles' strength. If the Orioles' rotation can keep it close early, manager Buck Showalter has a distinct advantage. Like the breakout season in 2012, this club thrives in extra innings thanks to a stout bullpen and a penchant to hit the long ball.
Reason for concern
Tigers: The bullpen has been a mess — its 4.29 relief ERA was 13th of 15 AL teams and no bullpen in the league had a worse batting average against than Detroit's .270 (in comparison, the Orioles' bullpen BAA was .229). Plus, longtime ace Justin Verlander hasn't been himself for much of the year and his 4.54 ERA will be the highest of any starter in this ALDS. Outfielder Rajai Davis, who has game-changing speed, is dealing with a strained groin/midsection and may not play.
Orioles: This club lives and dies by the home run. And homers are rarer in the postseason, when the pitching is usually a notch above. The Orioles have done fairly well against upper-echelon hurlers this year, however. Starters Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez have not fared well against Detroit in limited exposure. Calling the bottom third of the lineup "anemic at times" is being kind.
How they match up
Tigers: Cabrera is the obvious headliner; you know the guy is amazing when he is having a down year with 25 homers, 109 RBIs, a .313 average and a .371 on-base percentage. But this year's MVP candidate in Detroit — though he won't win it — is designated hitter Victor Martinez, who leads the club in average (.335), on-base percentage (.409) and slugging percentage (.565). Swapping out Prince Fielder for a rejuvenated Ian Kinsler was a terrific move, and J.D. Martinez (23 homers) provides another weapon. The Tigers rank first in the AL in total bases, doubles, batting average, OBP and slugging. Only the Los Angeles Angels have scored more runs.
Orioles: No team hits more homers than the Orioles. They blasted 211 this season, 25 more than the second-place Colorado Rockies. The Orioles have seven players with double-digit homers and four with 21 or more, including major league leader Nelson Cruz, who had 40 (and suspended infielder Chris Davis, who can't play in this series). Yet the Orioles were sixth in the AL in runs scored with 705, partially because of a .311 OBP that was 11th of 15 AL teams.
Tigers: Stick with us for a moment. When the finally healthy Anibal Sanchez has to go to the bullpen and Rick Porcello is a fourth starter, it's hard to consider this rotation anything but stellar. Yet the numbers paint another picture. The team ERA is 4.01, 11th in the AL. Obviously, the rocky bullpen inflates that, but with the addition of Sanchez and trade acquisition Joakim Soria, it is improving. The vaunted rotation's ERA, however, was 3.89, 10th in the league. Verlander has been the main culprit, but he has been better recently (3-1, 3.89 ERA in five September starts) and the sense is he ready to roll again. David Price (4-4, 3.59 ERA) has been human since coming over in July from the Tampa Bay Rays. Max Scherzer (18-5, 3.15), who is expected to start at Camden Yards on Thursday, continues to dazzle, but historically he is just solid against the Orioles — 3-1 with a 3.92 ERA in six starts, none this year.
Orioles: My Baseball Writers' Association of America card would have been revoked in April if I had suggested the Orioles rotation would be better statistically than the Tigers. None of the Orioles starters are in the AL Cy Young Award conversation, but the primary quartet has posted double-digit wins and ERAs under 3.65. That doesn't include rookie Kevin Gausman, who could be a secret weapon out of the postseason bullpen. The rotation's 3.61 ERA is fifth-best in the AL, and the bullpen has the third-best mark at 3.10. Collectively, the Orioles' ERA is 3.43, third in the AL and more than a half point lower than the Tigers. So this is a question of whether you go with numbers or reputation. The Orioles bullpen sways this one for me.
EDGE: Orioles, with a grimace
Tigers: In the spring, talent evaluators were saying the Tigers' infield defense was among the worst in baseball after shortstop Jose Iglesias was lost for the year. The sky didn't fall. Ian Kinsler is playing well defensively at second base, and Andrew Romine has stabilized the left side. Still, the outfield misses center fielder Austin Jackson, who was in the deal for David Price.
Orioles: This undoubtedly was a strength heading into the year. But they are without Gold Glove catcher Matt Wieters, Platinum Glove third baseman Manny Machado and the man who replaced him, Davis. Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley have done their jobs behind the plate, but third base is a real concern. Seven errors have been made there in the club's past 10 games. Ryan Flaherty is the best option. In case you didn't realize, right fielder Nick Markakis made it through the season without an error. That's really tough to do.
Tigers: Brad Ausmus, a longtime major league catcher, is in his first year as manager and has done a fine job keeping the Tigers going forward. It's never easy replacing someone with the reputation and success of Jim Leyland, but Ausmus is known as an exceptionally bright guy with strong communication skills. Still, he's a rookie, and he'll be under the microscope, especially his decisions involving his bullpen.
Orioles: Showalter hates this stuff. He doesn't play the games, got it? Got it. But his ability to get the most out of his players, keep them loose and focused and shuffle his lineup and bullpen to produce results has been superb.Sure, he makes an incorrect call on occasion, but he's thought of every scenario, and his players believe they have an edge because he's in their dugout.
Baltimore Orioles Insider
Tigers: Yes it's cliché. But there is no substitute for experience. And many of these Tigers have been to this spot before and know what it takes to win. It would be absolutely shocking, for instance, if Verlander doesn't magically turn back into Verlander in his first start, which likely will be Friday.
Orioles: The playoffs are the time for unexpected contributions and unintended heroes to emerge. Well, that's been the Orioles' deal all season. Pretty much everyone in an Orioles uniform has had a walk-off hit this year. It wouldn't be a surprise if that continues.
EDGE: Tigers, slightly (if you can even judge intangibles)
Comparing the rosters side by side, the Tigers should be the better team. But they aren't. The Orioles won more games. They've had a more complete year. And they don't have a glaring weakness, whereas the Tigers do with an unsettled bullpen. This should be an exceptionally entertaining series to watch, but playoffs often come down to the late innings. And the Orioles have the major edge there.
PREDICTION: Orioles in five games