DETROIT -- The Baltimore Orioles have grown accustomed to being overlooked in the American League East. New York and Boston typically overwhelm them with money and tradition, and Tampa Bay has become the trendy, "cutting edge'' team in recent years with its astute trades and deft roster management. That's left the Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays to fight for scraps of recognition as the unfortunate afterthoughts in the division.
The "hey, we're disrespected'' angle actually isn't a bad deal for the Baltimore players. It gives them a motivational edge and allows them to play ball unencumbered by expectations. As center fielder Adam Jones observed this weekend, "There's no pressure on us. We weren't supposed to be here. Everybody said we were supposed to finish last in our division, so we're playing with house money.''
The Orioles became the first team to qualify for the playoffs when they clinched the division title on Sept. 16 at Camden Yards, and they repeated the feat by a few hours Sunday as the first team to reach the league championship series. They did it in the most impressive way possible.
After dispensing with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander at Camden Yards, the Orioles traveled to Detroit and recorded a classic "statement'' victory. Bud Norris outpitched David Price by a hair, and Andrew Miller and Zach Britton emerged from the bullpen to see things through to the finish. The Orioles beat Detroit 2-1 to sweep the best-of-five series and move another step closer to their first World Series berth since 1983.
In the cramped visitor's clubhouse after the game, jubilation and a sense of purpose coalesced. Yes, the Orioles donned goggles and sprayed each other with champagne in the mode of every other team that clinches something these days. But they also projected an aura of unfinished business best expressed by catcher Caleb Joseph, a minor league lifer who stepped in and played a major role after starter Matt Wieters went down with Tommy John surgery in May.
"There's a sense of urgency for the end goal,'' Joseph said. "These [celebrations] never get old, but we just try to take care of business with what we know we do best. That's timely hitting, solid defense and our pitchers giving us a chance to win. At the end of the day, whether we have Cy Young Award winners or not, or AL MVP candidates, or batting champions, we've proven we're a good team. We like that.''
The same factors on display during Baltimore's 96-win regular season continued to play out in the division series and could bode well for the rest of the postseason. Baltimore's winning mix includes:
• Better starting pitching than people realize.
The Orioles' rotation went 68-45 and ranked fourth in the AL with a 3.61 ERA and fifth with a .251 batting average against during the regular season, and it continued to do the job against Detroit. Wei-Yin Chen was ineffective in Game 2, but Chris Tillman and Bud Norris both fulfilled the team mandate -- to keep the O's close until the relievers picked up the baton.
"We know our starters are really good, and they know they're really good,'' Joseph said. "They've really carried us for a long time now. They're a close-knit group and they do certain things that I know a lot of other teams don't do. They're very into each other's work. They participate in each others' bullpens and stuff like that. It's one of the small things that people don't see behind the lights that's helped keep them together. If they give us quality starts, we like our chances.''
• A lockdown bullpen.
Baltimore's relievers combined to strike out 11, walk four and allow two runs in 12 innings against Detroit. Rookie Kevin Gausman helped save the O's in long relief in Game 2, and Andrew Miller continued to be every bit the force the Orioles were hoping for when they acquired him from Boston at the trade deadline.
"He's the closest you're going to get to Randy Johnson these days -- him and probably Chris Sale,'' O's reliever Darren O'Day said. "It's got to be tough hitting against him whether you're left- or right-handed. Just look at the swings guys take off him. He's been a great addition.''
• Power that plays regardless of the venue.
The Orioles led the majors with 211 regular-season home runs, and it wasn't just a Camden Yards phenomenon. They ranked second to Colorado with 107 home runs at home, and they led the majors with 104 long balls on the road. Their .419 road slugging percentage was surpassed only by the Angels' .424 mark.
Nelson Cruz, who hit the winning two-run homer off Price on Sunday, has 16 home runs over the past five postseasons. Now all the Orioles need is a hot streak from No. 3 hitter Adam Jones, who contributed a mere two singles in the Detroit series and is a career 4-for-37 in the postseason.
• Showalter is on a major roll.
Every move Showalter made turned out well in the series. He went to Miller for five outs in the opener and for five outs again Sunday. In Game 2, Delmon Young came off the bench and delivered a decisive three-run double off righty reliever Joakim Soria. And after several days of speculation that Miguel Gonzalez would start Game 3, Showalter opted for Norris -- who threw 6⅓ shutout innings in the finale.
The definitive Showalter move came in the bottom of the ninth inning, after Britton allowed consecutive doubles to Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez. One out later, Nick Castellanos stepped to the plate as the potential winning run. Showalter came to the mound and bucked conventional thinking by telling Britton to intentionally walk him as the potential winning run.
Although the Orioles are too diplomatic to say it, Detroit's weak bench made the decision easy. The Tigers had Hernan Perez and Eugenio Suarez due up after Castellanos. And Showalter, who maps out all the possibilities days in advance, was obviously aware of that. Naturally, Perez grounded into a double play to end the series.
"Anytime your manager comes up to you and you can feel the confidence coming out of him, it helps,'' Britton said. "Buck said, 'Those were good pitches. Let's just get it a little more away from the barrel and we've got a win.' It was a good time for him to come out and do that.''
• The O's feel as if they're on a mission.
Yes, the quantitative-analysis crowd scoffs at the notion that togetherness and harmony matter, but winning teams can sense it when something special is in the air. The San Francisco Giants rode that mentality a long way with their "castoffs and misfits'' mantra in 2010, and the Orioles can relate with all the players who've found new life and a safe haven in the Charm City. The only thing they're missing is Aubrey Huff's red good-luck thong.
Baltimore has overcome season-ending injuries to Matt Wieters and Manny Machado and Chris Davis' 25-game suspension for amphetamine use. Steve Pearce has transformed himself from a journeyman to a lineup fixture this season, and Young gives them a major October weapon from the right side of the plate. Ryan Flaherty started all three games at third base against Detroit, contributed two hits and began a huge double play against Miguel Cabrera in Baltimore's 7-6 win Saturday. And Jonathan Schoop went 3-for-10 while starting all three games at second base.
After the champagne bottles had emptied and the crowd in the clubhouse dissipated Sunday, outfielder Nick Markakis talked about the sense of family the Orioles have developed through more than seven months and 165 regular-season and postseason games together. Markakis broke in with the Orioles in 2006 and experienced enough losing that he can appreciate this run more than most. He's wistful about the past and stoked about the immediate future.
"It's been a long time coming, but I knew eventually it was going to happen,'' Markakis said. "That's why I wanted to be here. Sometimes the longer you wait, the better.''
The Orioles have a few more days to wait before they take a shot at a World Series berth, and in the end it doesn't really matter if they're overlooked or the new frontrunners du jour. They just want to play more baseball.