The Orioles came into the American League Division Series knowing they couldn't match the Detroit Tigers ace for ace.
No single Oriole could comfortably compare resumes with Detroit's Game 1 starter, Max Scherzer, the 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner.
But as they have all season, the Orioles found a less traditional way to outduel flashier talent. Two first-time postseason performers, starter Chris Tillman and reliever Andrew Miller, combined to produce a better line than Scherzer before the Orioles blew the game open against the Tigers bullpen and won, 12-3.
“That's the Orioles man,” said center fielder Adam Jones. “We don't care who does it.”
Tillman came out blazing, striking out the side in the first inning with a fastball that routinely hit 95 mph on the stadium gun. But he fell victim to a mushrooming pitch count and had to turn the game over to Miller after the fifth inning.
That worked out, as the 6-foot-7 reliever, who has been nearly unhittable since the Orioles traded for him at the end of July, retired five Tigers without allowing a ball out of the infield.
The Orioles gave up an excellent pitching prospect, Eduardo Rodriguez, to get Miller, precisely because they envisioned him holding the fort in such scenarios. They already had a strong bullpen, with Zach Britton closing and Darren O'Day in the set-up role. But Miller allows them to cover nearly half a game with dominant relief arms.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus specifically praised Miller as the key factor in extending the Orioles' bullpen excellence in his pre-series remarks on Wednesday.
“I feel like everybody is clicking right now at the same time,” Miller said after the game. “If you can just get the ball to the next guy we are going to be in good shape. You trust that you go out there and give it your best until you're out of gas and Buck [Showalter] asks the next guy to come in.”
Some considered Miller a failed prospect after he went from the sixth overall pick in the 2006 draft (by the Tigers) to a starter who couldn't stay healthy or keep his ERA below 4.00. But he re-emerged as an overpowering reliever with the Boston Red Sox, falling short of pitching in the 2013 postseason only because he was hurt.
Miller went longer than usual against Detroit, yet delivered the customary results, striking out three of the six hitters he faced with his power fastball and confounding slider.
Tillman didn't need so much help in the regular season, when he pitched more than 200 innings for a second straight year and went six or more innings in 13 of his last 16 starts.
He might have gone at least six again if not for Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler, who worked him for 30 pitches over three at-bats, including a 14-pitch duel in the third inning. Kinsler didn't do any direct damage, but he accounted for almost one-third of Tillman's 105 pitches.
The home run was Tillman's other enemy, as he surrendered back-to-back solo shots to Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez in the second inning.
Nonetheless, he kept the Tigers in check enough to leave the game with a lead.
“It was crazy,” Tillman said of his first playoff start. “At first, I was a little out of it, and I was able to get back in. … I thought I was going to be really, really nervous but it was fun all the way around.”
Tillman was on the Orioles' playoff roster in 2012, the season he made the leap from prospect to established major league starter by going 8-3 in the second half. He was a serious candidate to start Game 4 in that year's ALDS against the New York Yankees. But manager Buck Showalter ultimately chose veteran lefty Joe Saunders, who had won his wild-card start against the Texas Rangers.
There was no doubting Tillman's place this time. He's been the club's most consistent starter for two seasons and was Showalter's clear choice to oppose Scherzer in Game 1.
“I've been real proud to watch him come along as a pitcher for us,” Showalter said.
Tillman didn't pitch his best game on the big stage, but with an assist from Miller, he was good enough.