DETROIT — There were no questions asked — only orders given and statements made. “We’re going to walk this guy,” Buck Showalter said to the six Baltimore Orioles he had gathered on the Comerica Park pitcher’s mound in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the American League Division Series. “The next guy’s going to hit into a double play, and we’re gonna go home.” The whole thing was less a prediction than an edict.
Showalter, two outs from a career-defining victory, turned and walked back to the Orioles’ dugout. Over the course of 26-plus innings in this series, we had seen Showalter in the roles of wise old sage, chess-game wizard and expert ego-stroker, and now, at the end of Game 3, he was simultaneously playing the roles of five-star general and oracle.
It all happened exactly as Showalter said it would: With one out and a runner on second, closer Zach Britton intentionally walked the next Detroit Tigers batter, Nick Castellanos — a risky move that put the go-ahead run on base in a one-run game. The batter after that, pinch hitter Hernan Perez, grounded into a game-ending double-play, third to second to first.
And the Orioles went home — but not before drenching each other in American beer and French champagne in the cramped visitor’s clubhouse, their 2-1 victory in Game 3 secure and their stunning, three-game sweep of the Tigers complete.
“Absolutely not,” Orioles starter Bud Norris said when asked whether he ever imagined sweeping the Tigers. “We figured it would be a long series, probably five games.”
The Orioles will return to Baltimore to rest for a few days before their improbable season continues with the AL Championship Series — the franchise’s first trip to baseball’s final four since 1997 — which begins Friday.
“It was short and sweet,” third baseman Ryan Flaherty said of Showalter’s fateful mound visit in Sunday’s ninth inning. “He really said it, just like that: ‘We’re going to walk this guy, and the next guy’s going to hit into a double play, and we’re gonna go home.’ ”
For the Orioles, Sunday’s victory and the three-game sweep of the AL Central champs represented a validation of both their relentless 96-win season and their identity as scrappy, ego-free opportunists who can take down any behemoth with confidence and teamwork. Against Detroit, they vanquished a recent Cy Young winner in all three games, including lefty David Price on Sunday.
“We may not be able to outdo [opponents] in some other areas,” Showalter said, “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.”
For Showalter, Sunday’s victory marked the first postseason series win of his big league managerial career, having lost the 1995 ALDS, 1999 NLDS and 2012 ALDS while managing the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Orioles, respectively.
“I’m a ship passing in the night,” Showalter said. “This is fun to watch, and believe me, I’m happier than you can imagine. But most of it comes from getting to see the players get what they put into it.”
On Sunday, the Orioles constructed a two-run lead on Nelson Cruz’s two-run homer off Price in the sixth then watched the lead get cut in half when Britton, a hard-throwing lefty converted from starter to closer this season, gave up back-to-back doubles to Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez to open the ninth.
A sellout crowd of 43,013 suddenly came to life, picking up the giveaway white towels they had stuffed under their seats for the previous few innings and waving them over their heads frantically.
The third batter of the inning, Tigers backup catcher Bryan Holaday, failed to get a sacrifice bunt down and struck out. That brought to the plate Castellanos, a 22-year-old rookie with a big bat and a bright future. He was also by far the best hitter among the next three batters, plus anyone they had left on their bench.
Showalter bolted out of the Orioles’ dugout — moving as fast as a 58-year-old ex-ballplayer can go, slowing from a trot to a stroll as he approached the mound. Britton and catcher Nick Hundley were there, and Flaherty, J.J. Hardy and Jonathan Schoop came in from their infield spots, followed by first baseman Steve Pearce.
Britton recalled hearing a few words of encouragement — “Those were good pitches,” Showalter told him, speaking of the two pitches the Martinezes had smashed for doubles — before the instructions came. Showalter returned to the dugout, and Britton issued the intentional walk of Castellanos.
“When you put the winning run on base like that — it takes a lot of guts to do that,” Orioles General Manager Dan Duquette said. “It clearly told everybody: Buck was playing to win the series, there and then.”
The next batter was to be shortstop Andrew Romine, but Tigers Manager Brad Ausmus — outmanned all series by the Orioles’ personnel and outmanaged by his counterpart — sent up Perez to pinch-hit. On Britton’s second pitch, a 96-mph fastball, Perez grounded meekly to Flaherty, who started a double play that seemed almost too easy for such a perilous situation.
The Orioles won the series because three starting pitchers named Tillman, Chen and Norris outpitched a trio of superstars named Scherzer, Verlander and Price. They won because their bullpen functioned the way managers dream it up in the postseason and because Showalter deployed it with expert precision — while Ausmus had neither the arms nor the wherewithal to match.
Once Norris finally petered out two batters into the seventh, Showalter went right to his top bullpen weapon, using lefty Andrew Miller for five critical outs, just as he had in Game 1 three days earlier.
They won because of Cruz’s bat and what happened in Sunday’s sixth inning. The ball left his bat on a lazy, nondescript arc toward the right field corner. It looked like it might drift foul or drop into the right fielder’s glove near the wall — until it kept sailing, long and true, and cleared the wall.
Cruz circled the bases, the crowd at Comerica Park grew silent and sullen and the Orioles’ path to clinching the series was suddenly right in front of them.
They may not have known at the time where that path would lead them, into the teeth of a vicious ninth-inning storm, but they knew where it would end — because their manager had told them so, and Buck Showalter, as everyone knows by now, is never wrong.