The Orioles offense received the wake-up call it needed in the fourth inning of Wednesday afternoon’s series finale when Detroit Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander threw a 94-mph fastball behind designated hitter Nelson Cruz.
The pitch appeared to be retribution for Monday's series opener, when Orioles right-hander Bud Norris hit Torii Hunter in the ribs in the eighth inning after allowing a two-run homer to Ian Kinsler, prompting both dugouts and bullpens to empty.
Both benches were warned Wednesday after Verlander nearly hit Cruz, and the pitch injected some life into a sleepy Orioles team that had been scoreless for 12 straight innings.
“Verlander certainly woke us up a little, if we needed waking up,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I think he helped us make an adjustment, kind of got everybody on a different intensity level after he threw at Nelson."
Trailing, 6-0, the Orioles scored five runs in the next inning, capped by Cruz’s three-run homer off Verlander. But they couldn’t capitalize on that momentum shift, falling to the Tigers, 7-5, in front of an announced 36,727 at Camden Yards.
“Anytime you get thrown behind, it’s going to wake you,” said Cruz, who leads the club with 11 home runs and 33 RBIs. “We battled. ... In that situation, when you’re down by six and you get that close, I thought the momentum was on our side.
"We have the chance to get it done. We had the bases loaded, runners on base. We didn’t get the big hit in that situation, but we’re just going to focus on the positive.”
Still, the Orioles (20-18) were swept at home in a three-game series for the first time since they lost three in a row at Camden Yards on May 17-19, 2013 to the Tampa Bay Rays. The club now has lost four straight games as it begins a six-game road trip to Kansas City and Pittsburgh.
The momentum built last week during the Orioles' season-high five-game winning streak was quickly halted against a Tigers team with the best record in the American League. And a three-game series between two division leaders was markedly one-sided this week.
“It’s never fun to get swept,” catcher Steve Clevenger said. “We got to get better. We got to get better as a ballclub. If we are going to be a playoff team, this is a team we’re going to play. We have to get better.”
The Orioles have lost five of six against Detroit this season, and they are 3-9 against the AL Central. They scored in just three of the 27 innings against the Tigers in the series and were 4-for-21 with runners in scoring position.
Before their five-run fifth against Verlander (5-2) -- who hadn’t allowed more than three runs in any of his previous eight starts before giving up five runs and six hits in six innings Wednesday -- the Orioles had scored just two runs in the first 22 innings of the series.
The Orioles stranded the bases loaded in the eighth inning and brought the tying run to the plate in the ninth, but they couldn't break through against the Tigers bullpen.
Pitching prospect Kevin Gausman, promoted Wednesday to make his first major league start this season, was forced from the game after four innings because of a high pitch count.
Gausman (0-1) retired the first six batters he faced but ran into trouble in the third inning, loading the bases for Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera.
Bryan Holaday and Danny Worth hit back-to-back, one-out singles before Ian Kinsler reached with two outs on a comebacker that hit off Gausman’s foot for an infield single. Cabrera then hit an 0-1 sinker into left field for a two-run double to give the Tigers a 2-0 lead.
“Me and [Clevenger] decided on throwing a first-pitch change-up right there,” Gausman said. “Great pitch. The next one, we went sinker in. Good pitch, too. Great hitter. Just dropped the bat head on it and hit a line drive.”
Gausman then gave up three more runs in a 31-pitch fourth inning, allowing RBI singles to bottom-of-the-order hitters Holaday and Worth and a sacrifice fly to Rajai Davis.
“Really, the bottom half of the lineup is what got me today,” Gausman said.
The Tigers (24-12) added another run in the fifth on Don Kelly’s two-out RBI single, going up 5-0.
Gausman, who was working on three days' rest, was on a pitch count in the minors and hadn’t thrown more than 77 pitches in any of his six Triple-A starts. He left Wednesday’s outing after 87 pitches in four innings, giving up five runs and six hits with two strikeouts and two walks.
The Orioles had just one hit against Verlander before he nearly hit Cruz with one out and one runner on base in the fourth inning.
“We knew it was going to come at some point this series,” Clevenger said. ”It kind of fired us up and woke us up a bit.”
Cruz said: “[Verlander] was dealing before that, so I’m not going to judge anybody. I’m not going to say he threw at me on purpose. He only knows what was in his mind. It is what it is.”
After both dugouts were warned by home plate umpire John Tumpane, Showalter wanted to know why Verlander wasn’t ejected when Norris was immediately thrown out after hitting Hunter two nights earlier.
"I'm just trying to figure out the consistency of it,” Showalter said. “You get one pitch and they read intent on Bud, and you get one pitch that's completely obvious that there's intent there, so why did you issue a warning and not eject him?
“At that point, I think our guys were kind of hoping he'd stay in the game."
After the game, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus had an interesting perspective.
“As skilled as these pitchers are at this level, balls get away from pitchers sometimes, just like I’m sure the ball got away from Bud Norris,” Ausmus said.
The Orioles then broke through with the five runs in the fifth -- all scored with two outs.
They placed runners on the corners following David Lough’s single and a walk to Manny Machado before Adam Jones drove in the Orioles’ first run on a two-out single to left field. Chris Davis followed with an RBI single to center, placing two runners on for Cruz.
Cruz took a 1-2 curveball over the left-field fence for his team-high 11th home run of the season, putting the Orioles back in the game.
But Rajai Davis knocked in a big insurance run for Detroit, hitting a solo homer off right-hander Miguel Gonzalez, who was working out of the bullpen, in the sixth inning.
The Orioles had the bases loaded with two outs in the eighth against Tigers reliever Joba Chamberlain, but Nick Markakis flew out to center field to end the inning. They brought the tying run to the plate in the ninth on Detroit closer Joe Nathan, but Cruz hit a groundout to shortstop to end the game.
“It’s hard to stay consistent,” Cruz said. “It’s a long season. But, like I said, we’re not going to focus on what happened in bad situations. We’re going to focus on whatever we do well on a daily basis and that can get you going through the season.”