DETROIT -- Buck Showalter has played postseason chess several times before, and like most participants as confident as he is, he has lost more times than not.
But in the Orioles’ triumphant American League Division Series sweep of the Detroit Tigers, the manager pulled all the right strings.
Before the Orioles’ series-clinching Game 3 win over the Tigers on Sunday afternoon, he switched the rotation, tabbing right-hander Bud Norris to start. And down to the final two outs, he veered from the unconventional, putting the winning run on base in the bottom of the ninth with an intentional walk before allowing closer Zach Britton to finish a three-game sweep of the Tigers.
The Orioles’ dramatic 2-1 victory over the Tigers on Sunday gave Showalter — the on-field architect of the club's resurgence — his first postseason series win in his 16-year managerial career, sending the Orioles to their first AL Championship Series in 17 years. They will open the ALCS on Friday at Camden Yards against the Kansas City Royals, who swept the Los Angeles Angels in the other ALDS.
“The sad thing is, only one team is going to be completely happy when this is all over,” Showalter said. “It can be real cold. … [Our players] don’t want to watch it. They want to participate and be in that [pressure] cooker, so to speak. That’s what you look for in players.”
The Orioles' three-game sweep of the Tigers marked their first postseason series sweep in more than four decades, when they beat the Oakland A's in three games in the 1971 ALCS.
Inside the visiting clubhouse of Comerica Park, the Orioles sprayed bottles of Chandon and chugged Budweiser, but their celebration was far more muted than their party in front of the home crowd at Camden Yards three weeks ago after claiming the AL East.
“This is the position you want to be in, playing in October and moving on,” right fielder Nick Markakis said. “That’s what it’s all about. We’ve got a couple more steps we want to do. We’ve got some ball to play, and it’s going to be fun. We’re going to have fun doing it.”
Along the plastic covering that protected the players’ lockers was placed a Tigers scorecard featuring the jerseys of Detroit’s three Cy Young Award winners — Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price — each one crossed out with thick black marker.
The Orioles were the unquestioned underdog in this series, despite a 96-win season and a division title. They faced one of the most dangerous lineups in the majors and a team with impressive postseason credentials — one World Series trip and an additional two to the ALCS over the past three years.
“We enjoy being the underdogs, to try and fly under the radar,” shortstop J.J. Hardy said. “As long as we can do that, the better.”
In Sunday’s series-clinching win, designated hitter Nelson Cruz provided all the offense, breaking a scoreless tie in the sixth inning with a two-run homer off Price. And Norris, an unlikely hero who was told he was pitching in Game 3 on the team’s flight to Detroit on Friday night, shut down the Tigers lineup with 6 1/3 scoreless innings in his postseason debut.
Inside the Orioles clubhouse, executive vice president Dan Duquette, who brought both to Baltimore — Norris by a deadline deal with the Houston Astros last season and Cruz with a savvy February one-year, $8 million deal that was undoubtedly the best free-agent bargain of the season — received a classy congratulatory hug from Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski.
Cruz’s 16th career postseason homer passed Babe Ruth for ninth place on the all-time list. He also tied New York Yankees outfielder Carlos Beltran for fourth among active players, trailing Derek Jeter (20), Albert Pujols (18) and David Ortiz (16).
Eight of Cruz’s postseason homers have come against the Tigers. As a member of the Texas Rangers, he hit six homers against Detroit in the 2011 ALCS. In eight career postseason games against the Tigers, Cruz is 8-for-20 with 18 RBIs.
Cruz, who led the major leagues with 40 homers in the regular season, could have been had by any team in baseball in the offseason. But he didn’t receive the multiyear deal he was seeking and in February signed with the Orioles.
Every time Cruz stepped to the plate Sunday, he heard an unmistakable chorus of boos and the chant of “ster-oids” from the crowd, a reference to his serving a 50-game suspension last year for his involvement in the BioGenesis scandal.
“He’s been outstanding,” Norris said. “Our MVP for sure. There have been so many guys that have stepped up this year, but what Nelson’s been through in the last couple years and to come into Baltimore and have another outstanding season, you can’t ask for more. He has a postseason pedigree, and we are pretty pumped he is on our side.”
While it wasn’t his most impressive homer of the season, it undoubtedly was his most important. With one on in the sixth inning, Cruz sent a 1-1 changeup tailing off the barrel of his bat down the right-field line into the first row of seats, just inside the base of the foul pole above the 330 feet sign on the fence.
“It was special,” Cruz said. “I was just hoping the ball didn’t go foul. That was my only concern, because usually when I hit the ball to right, it tails a bit right. That was my only concern.”
Price had retired seven straight Orioles hitters before Adam Jones hit a one-out single up the middle, bringing Cruz to the plate. Cruz’s blast silenced an already subdued announced 43,013 at Comerica Park on a chilly afternoon as the sun set on the Tigers' season.
“The only thing I was thinking was, ‘I could hear a pin drop in this stadium,’” Markakis said. “It was awesome. He’s been big for us all year. He’s been big in the postseason so far. Hopefully he can continue that, and we’ll all follow behind him.”
Opening his career pitching in baseball purgatory in Houston, Norris had never pitched in the postseason, let alone in a game of this magnitude. He entered the day with an unsightly 6.59 ERA in four previous starts against Detroit.
But pitching after a 10-day layoff from his last regular-season start, Norris allowed just four base runners — two hits and two walks — while striking out six. Overall, the Orioles held the Tigers to four hits in the game.
Norris didn’t allow a hit after Don Kelly’s leadoff single in the third inning. He retired 11 of his last 12 batters — the only base runner allowed was Kelly, who reached on a third-strike wild pitch — before issuing a one-out walk in the seventh, his final batter of the game.
Norris escaped a scare in the bottom of the third inning unscathed, stranding two runners in scoring position after a rare throwing error by shortstop J.J. Hardy placed runners at second and third bases.
Showalter stretched out left-handed reliever Andrew Miller twice this series. On Sunday, Miller retired all five batters he faced, bridging the game between Norris and Britton in the ninth.
But Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez opened the inning with back-to-back doubles off Britton, cutting the Orioles lead to one. After Britton struck out catcher Bryan Holaday, Showalter then intentionally walked Nick Castellanos — creating a force play, but placing the winning run on base.
Showalter put faith in Britton and his ground-ball inducing power sinker . And the strategy worked to perfection as pinch hitter Hernan Perez hit a sinker from Britton to third base, starting a 5-4-3 game-ending double play that prompted a celebration behind the pitcher’s mound.
“I thought it was great,” Britton said. “I was on the same page as him right there. You set up the double play. With how many ground balls I can get and how good our defense is, I think you’ve got to take the risk that I’m going to get a ground ball right there. Knowing that Buck had the confidence that I could do it allowed me to focus in a little bit more and make a good pitch.”
The postseason is a race to whoever can win 11 games first, and the Orioles are now one step along in the process, eight wins away from their first World Series title in 31 years. And after Sunday’s win, they would admit they even surprised themselves against the mighty Tigers.
“We figured it would be a long series, you figure probably five games,” Norris said. “It could go with one swing of the bat, one pitch can change the game, but obviously things are on our side right now and a three-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers who have been there and have all these MVPs and Cy Youngs. Well, it’s a team game, we got it done and we are pretty excited about today.”