BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Orioles have repeatedly heard they're not a club that's "built'' for the postseason, thanks in large part to the absence of a Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright, Zack Greinke or Madison Bumgarner in their starting rotation. Skeptics take note of that void with a certain cavalier dismissiveness, as if it's possible to just drop by the neighborhood lawn & garden store and pull a Kershaw off the shelf with a rototiller and a bag of grass seed.
When informed of the reasons for skepticism surrounding his team, manager Buck Showalter responds with a furrowed eyebrow and a disarming brand of common sense.
"What are you supposed to do?'' Showalter said recently. "Build a team for the postseason and then not make it?''
Now that the Orioles have won 96 games and captured their first AL East title in 17 years, it might be a public service to opponents to reiterate why they're so formidable. Baltimore is a resolute and resilient team that makes use of its entire roster. The pitching staff might not be sensational, but it's deep. And judging from those major-league-high 211 regular-season home runs, the Orioles can change the tone of a game in a hurry.
Teams that want to beat the Orioles better keep them in the yard. And it's a really good idea not to engage them in a bullpen chess match.
In Baltimore's American League Division Series opener with Detroit on Thursday, Chris Tillman needed 103 pitches to complete five innings. But that was enough to get Showalter to his wheelhouse. Baltimore's manager called upon Andrew Miller, Darren O'Day, Zach Britton and Tommy Hunter to divvy up the final 12 outs, and the Orioles beat Detroit 12-3 to take a 1-0 series lead before a crowd of 47,842 orange-clad zanies at Camden Yards.
This was actually a competitive game until the bottom of the eighth inning, when the Orioles sent 12 men to the plate and scored eight runs off a Detroit bullpen that showed it can be bad with or without an appearance by beleaguered closer Joe Nathan. Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria and Phil Coke, the three pitchers who followed starter Max Scherzer to the mound, turned a 4-3 deficit into a flaming conflagration of despair for manager Brad Ausmus. And just for good measure, Detroit's suspect defense contributed two errors to the mess.
The Orioles and Tigers, those hearty breakfast clubbers, will meet again at 12:07 p.m. ET Friday, with Wei-Yin Chen taking on Justin Verlander. The Tigers will be looking for seven or eight solid innings from Verlander, while Showalter has the usual smorgasbord of options available in his lockdown pen. As if the Orioles needed a cherry on top, Showalter summoned Britton to record the final out in the eighth inning, then had the luxury of lifting his closer after five pitches.
The Orioles battered the Tigers on a night when Adam Jones, their team leader and No. 3 hitter, went 0-for-5. But Nelson Cruz hit his 15th postseason homer to tie Babe Ruth for 10th place on the all-time list; and J.J. Hardy went deep; and Nick Markakis got things rolling with two hits in the leadoff spot; and Ryan Flaherty, Jonathan Schoop, Steve Pearce and Alejandro De Aza all put something in the basket.
"Our style isn't conventional,'' Jones said. "We hack, and sometimes we look like we have no idea what we're doing at the plate. But at some point in time, it clicks. We had good at-bats the entire game off Scherzer and their bullpen. If you make hard contact, something is probably going to happen.''
The Orioles outscored opponents 316-247 after the sixth inning during the regular season, and they're content to take their chances in a nip-and-tuck environment in October. The bullpen is deep enough that lefties Brian Matusz and T.J. McFarland, who allowed a combined one run in 11⅓ innings in September, didn't even make the division series roster.
The Orioles have a major weapon from the left side in Miller, who has taken a long and winding road to reach this point. He began his professional career with Detroit as the sixth pick in the 2006 first-year player draft out of the University of North Carolina, went to Florida with Cameron Maybin in the big Miguel Cabrera-Dontrelle Willis trade in 2007, and emerged as a shutdown reliever in Boston only to miss the Red Sox's 2013 World Series run with a foot injury.
At the July trade deadline, the always resourceful Dan Duquette, Baltimore's executive vice president of baseball operations, acquired Miller from Boston in a trade for highly regarded pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez. The price was high given that Miller is eligible for free agency in November, but Miller struck out 34 batters in 20 innings as an Oriole and brought a whole new dynamic to the equation. As a lot of personnel insiders observed, the impact of the transaction was magnified given Showalter's aptitude for running a bullpen.
"I knew he was good, but good means different things,'' Miller said of Showalter. "He gives guys full innings. Guys start innings frequently. And he trusts his guys and leaves them out there for extended periods of times. He really does have a way with it. It's been really impressive since I've been here.''
Miller deftly mixed his slider and fastball and induced some funky hacks while striking out Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez in the sixth inning. Miguel Cabrera hit an opposite-field homer off O'Day to pull Detroit within a run in the top of the eighth. But Baltimore's eight-run onslaught in the bottom of the inning ensured that the suspense was short-lived.
The Orioles' 12-game margin over New York in the American League East gave Showalter the luxury of backing off his relievers down the stretch and allowing everyone to recharge in time for October. So on most nights, anything more than five or six innings from Baltimore's starter will be gravy in the postseason.
"We're not scared of multiple innings,'' O'Day said. "Buck strategically rested us pretty well over the last couple of weeks. When you get into the postseason, it's like no-holds-barred. With all the days off, you can pitch almost every game. We did it in 2012 [in the playoffs] and we're ready to do it again this year.''
For a team with such limited exposure to October ball, the Orioles certainly appear to be in their element. The Tigers will come back at them hard with the right-left combination of Verlander and David Price in Games 2 and 3. But the O's are perfectly comfortable winning games their way.