DETROIT -- Buck Showalter never wants to get pigeonholed into making a hasty decision. The Orioles manager always likes to digest all the information available to him — talk to his coaches, and sometimes his players — before making a choice. And because intangibles can change, so can his mind.
With his team up two games to none on the Detroit Tigers in the best-of-five American League Division Series, Showalter decided to alter his rotation on Saturday’s day off, tabbing right-hander Bud Norris to start Sunday’s Game 3 in a possible clinching situation.
Showalter never officially announced a Game 3 starter, but right-hander Miguel Gonzalez was in line to start and Showalter indicated he would do so. But following the Orioles’ 7-6 Game 2 comeback win on Friday at Camden Yards, he told Norris — who has never pitched in a postseason game and has struggled against Detroit — on the team flight to Detroit that he would pitch on Sunday against the Tigers at Comerica Park.
The move was abrupt but not entirely unexpected. Over the final two turns through the rotation during the regular season, Showalter gave himself some wiggle room.
“Going into the postseason, we knew that anything was possible, and Buck said for all of us to be ready,” said Norris, who is 0-3 with a 6.57 ERA in four career starts against the Tigers. “So I got the news [Friday] afternoon when we got on the flight. He said he wanted to move things around and said, ‘You got the ball in Game 3.’”
Gonzalez is now scheduled to pitch a possible Game 4 on Monday afternoon in Detroit, if necessary.
At Camden Yards, the Orioles outplayed a Tigers team that wrapped ALCS appearances in 2013 and 2011 around a World Series appearance in 2012. Now, the Orioles are one win away from their first ALCS berth in 17 years.
“Trying to close out a good season is a real challenge and nothing is handed to you this time of year,” Showalter said. “We know that. The only thing we’ve gained is we know there is going to be another game in Baltimore [if needed], that’s it. We think it’s a given that we’re going to have a real challenge to win another game, and I think our guys respect how hard this is to do.”
As the series moves to Detroit, the Orioles have three games to beat the Tigers once, but hope to have a Game 5 mentality on Sunday.
“We have to maintain and stay focused on the present,” said outfielder Nelson Cruz. “Don’t think about the future. Go out there like it will be the last game and we should be good. We should be able close it out. That’s the mentality we have to treat it with. They’re a pretty good team there so you don’t want to give them a chance to come back.”
The Orioles will face a range of challenges, from a loud, sold-out Comerica Park to temperatures that are expected to drop into the 40s. The Orioles don’t want to give the Tigers any momentum, especially at home.
The Orioles have played well on the road all season. Their 46 road wins are tied with the Los Angeles Angles for the most in the American League. The Tigers ended the regular season with identical 45-36 records at home and on the road.
“I think everybody still thinks that we’re the underdog or we’re behind,” closer Zach Britton said. “You kind of see that a little bit. It’s not the attitude that we’re in a good spot. … They got here for a reason and they’ve been here before for a reason. They’ve got a really good lineup and some guys who can do some damage, so we’ve got to be on our game all the way through or otherwise, you’ll look up and the series will be even quick. And we know that.”
As for Showalter’s decision to start Norris in Game 3, he said there were a variety of factors what went into the decision, among them Norris’ dramatic day-night splits, the ability to use him out of the bullpen in a possible make-or-break Game 5 and getting him back on the mound after 10 days off.
“I don’t want to get too far away from [pitching],” Showalter said. “Just like [pitching coach] Dave [Wallace] and I said, everything you take into consideration, all the tentacles of it, sides of it, it feels like it points in this direction. Also [it] is the things it allows us to do. You could get somebody hurt today or tomorrow. And Bud’s availability in Game 5 might be [important]. You’re always thinking what if.”
Norris is 3-4 with a 5.57 ERA in eight day starts and 12-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 20 night starts. Sunday’s game will be at 3:45 p.m., while Game 4 would begin at either 12:07 p.m. or 1:37 p.m. depending on whether the other ALDS series is completed. That might not seem like much of a difference, but Showalter said giving Norris a later start factored in.
“That’s one of the many things that we look that,” Showalter said. “Certain guys respond to that better.”
Showalter said the switch was not an attempt to align his rotation for a possible ALCS matchup.
Showalter has been coy with revealing his rotation throughout the season — cautious to not give the opposition too much information — but in the postseason, teams are required to make their next-day starter available to the media. Showalter said changing pitchers was not a strategic move.
“I told them exactly, ‘We're going to go day-to-day, but here is our four guys we’re picking,” Showalter said. “You don't get any edge from that. We knew if certain things happened the first two games, Bud would pitch. … There were a lot of things that went into it and it wasn't for some competitive edge, necessarily. Just didn't want to commit to something until we got Game 1 under our belt and Game 2 under our belt and get to the off-day today.”
Showalter has veered away from his regular season bullpen formula, going to his relievers early in Game 1. In selecting his 11-man ALDS pitching staff he carried right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez — who had made just three relief appearances since 2006 — in a bullpen role instead of left-handers Brian Matusz and T.J. McFarland, who had been with the club all season.
The rotation shuffle is just the latest unconventional decision.
“We had a couple of meetings, he said things are going to be worked around, he wants to use the match-ups the best he can,” Norris said of Showalter. “He realized it's going to be a short series. It does tell you about the trust he has in us to get the job done. He's been there before. You got to trust him the whole way through. That's what takes a lot of pressure off of us just to go out there and play as far as the staff is concerned.