DETROIT (AP)– In the Baltimore Orioles' clubhouse Sunday night, amid the champagne corks and beer bottles and ski goggles, sat a Detroit Tigers scorecard. On it was a picture of three jerseys – Scherzer, Price, Verlander – each hanging above an AL Cy Young Award. Each X'd out.
Max Scherzer won the Cy Young last year. He pitched Game 1 of the ALDS for the Tigers. The Orioles won. X.
Justin Verlander won the Cy Young in 2011 – and the MVP, too. He pitched Game 2 for the Tigers. The Orioles won. X.
David Price won the Cy Young in 2012 with the Tampa Bay Rays. He pitched Game 3 for the Tigers, and he gave them the type of performance they envisioned when they acquired him at the trade deadline, the type of performance they needed so desperately now – eight innings, six strikeouts, five hits, two runs. The Orioles still won, 2-1. X.
"I mean, if you tell me before the series we're going to sweep, I don't believe it," said Orioles designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who tagged Price for a two-run homer in the sixth. "[They] have three great pitchers, you know, and they have a great offense also. And to be able to win three in a row, it was pretty shocking."
The Orioles are headed to the ALCS for the first time since 1997. This team doesn't have the stars that one did – Mike Mussina, Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro, Brady Anderson, Cal Ripken Jr. This team doesn't even have the stars it's supposed to have. Manny Machado and Matt Wieters are hurt. Chris Davis is suspended for amphetamine use.
But look at what the Orioles do have – Cruz, defense, a good bullpen and a smart manager. And look at what they have done (so far): They have won 96 regular-season games. They have won the AL East, an accomplishment whether or not the division had a down year. They have swept a team with the winners of the past three AL Cy Youngs and the past three AL MVPs.
"A lot of people doubt us, but I'm used to that," said Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis. "I'm used to people doubting us, and I like them doubting us. Let them keep doubting us. We know what we have. We know what we need to do. And we're going to do a damn good job of trying to get it done."
Scherzer and Verlander were not their dominant selves in Games 1 and 2. But the real issue for the Tigers was their combustible bullpen and meltdown eighth innings. They needed Price to go deep, to keep that bullpen gate shut, and he did. His only mistake came in the sixth, when he left a pitch up and Cruz got enough of it to slip the ball just over the wall and just inside the right-field foul pole.
Cruz served a 50-game suspension last season for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. He turned down a $14 million qualifying offer from the Texas Rangers, only to sign a one-year, $8 million contract with the Orioles. He led baseball with 40 home runs in the regular season, and he went 6 for 12 in this series with two home runs and five RBIs.
"He knows things were self-inflicted," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "He really wanted to establish himself, and we thought we could provide a real good opportunity for him, and the sky might be the limit."
Meanwhile, the Orioles got 6 1/3 innings of two-hit ball from Bud Norris and a 1 2/3 innings of no-hit ball from Andrew Miller. Miguel Cabrera, the back-to-back AL MVP in 2012 and '13, ended the eighth with a grounder to second. He hit .364 with a home run in the series but went 0 for 4 with the season on the line Sunday.
Comerica Park was mostly quiet for 3 1/2 hours, the fans dreading another disappointment – all that talent, all that money, all those playoffs, no titles for owner Mike Ilitch. Then Victor Martinez led off the bottom of the ninth with a double. Then J.D. Martinez doubled him home. And the yard roared with hope, fans on their feet finally, towels twirling.
Then Zach Britton struck out Bryan Holaday, and then Showalter came to the mound. After two Detroit doubles, Showalter doubled down. He told Britton to intentionally walk Nick Castellanos, putting the winning run on base.
"It takes a lot of guts to do it," said Dan Duquette, the Orioles' executive vice president, baseball operations. "Make no mistake about it: The man was playing to win the game and the series – and advance to play for the pennant."
Guts, yes. But brains, too. Showalter knew Britton was one of the best ground-ball pitchers in baseball. He knew his defense had the ability to turn two. And he knew the Tigers' eighth and ninth hitters were up, with no one scary on the bench. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus sat Andrew Romine, who was 2 for 11 in the series, and pinch hit Hernan Perez, who was 0 for 1 in the series – and 0 for 1 in his postseason career. The 23-year-old hit a grounder to third.
"Knowing Buck had the confidence I could do it allowed me to focus in a little bit more and make a good pitch," Britton said. "When Buck came out and J.J. Hardy came out, they were just like, 'Hey, one good pitch away.' If you think in that way, it makes it a lot easier."
Double play. Game. Series.
X. X. X.
"Nobody's that smart," Showalter said. "Just needed a little karma, change the way that inning was going. …Just really played to the strength of our guys."
That is a strength of its own.
"We kind of know who we are and never got caught up in the disease of 'me,' " Showalter said. "There is not a 'woe is me.' It's, 'Where is the next challenge coming?' …We may not be able to outdo in some other areas, but we can out-opportunity people. A lot of guys took an opportunity and ran with it, so they're going to get a chance to continue to roll the dice."