DETROIT (AP) On the verge of his first playoff series victory as a major league manager, Buck Showalter made another unusual move – and it worked.
Showalter put the winning run on base with an intentional walk in the ninth inning Sunday, and closer Zach Britton got the next batter to hit into a game-ending double play that gave the Baltimore Orioles a 2-1 win over the Detroit Tigers and a sweep of their AL Division Series.
”You guys can judge conventionality,” said Showalter, who once won a game after intentionally walking Barry Bonds with the bases loaded. ”I think each situation changes depending on the strength of your players and the strength of their players on a given night.”
Now the Orioles move on to the AL Championship Series. It’s the first time they’ve been there since 1997 – and the first-ever LCS appearance for Showalter. Baltimore hosts Game 1 against Kansas City on Friday.
The Orioles haven’t won a World Series since 1983, and the Royals haven’t since 1985. Neither team has a pennant since then, either.
These two teams certainly weren’t favored to emerge this year in an American League that includes the star-studded Tigers, the big-market Yankees and Red Sox and the always-dangerous Athletics. Yet, here they are.
The Royals swept the Los Angeles Angels, who had baseball’s best record during the regular season. Baltimore swept a Detroit team that had the AL’s last three Cy Young Award winners. The Tigers lined up Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price to pitch the first three games – and lost them all.
”We knew what we were getting into – three Cy Youngs back-to-back-to-back,” Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy said. ”It’s a great team over there. We didn’t expect to win three straight like that.”
Bud Norris outpitched Price on Sunday, and Nelson Cruz hit a two-run homer in the sixth inning for the only runs the Orioles would need. Showalter, who used reliever Andrew Miller for 1 2-3 innings in a Game 1 win, had him get five outs again Sunday in relief of Norris.
Then came the ninth, when the Tigers scored and had the tying run at second with nobody out. Bryan Holaday struck out after a failed bunt attempt, and Showalter had Britton intentionally walk Nick Castellanos.
”It didn’t surprise me. Buck has been doing this a long time,” Detroit manager Brad Ausmus said. ”I don’t think he would do anything that would shock me. He would rather face the hitters coming up behind Nick Castellanos as opposed to Nick Castellanos.”
The walk brought up the last two spots in Detroit’s batting order, and the Tigers do not have a deep bench. Ausmus sent up Hernan Perez – who had five at-bats in the regular season – to pinch hit, and he bounced a 96 mph fastball into a 5-4-3 double play.
That gave Showalter a breakthrough of sorts after he’d lost in the Division Series previously with the Orioles, New York Yankees and Arizona. He downplayed his accomplishment afterward.
”This is fun to watch, and believe me, I’m happier than you can imagine,” Showalter said. ”But most of it comes from getting to see the players get what they put into it.”
The Tigers, meanwhile, fell short again in their bid to win their first World Series since 1984. Detroit has won four straight AL Central titles, and the team had advanced at least to the ALCS during the first three years of that run.
Verlander and slugger Miguel Cabrera have been signed to long-term contracts, but Scherzer, Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter are entering free agency, meaning Detroit’s roster could look a lot different next year. Retirement is a possibility for Hunter.
”Don’t know what the future holds for me,” Hunter said. ”I’ll talk it over with my wife and see what happens.”
For the Orioles, the future includes a trip to the ALCS and a chance to play for the pennant – something that seemed far-fetched at the beginning of the year and still somewhat unlikely after the team lost Manny Machado and Matt Wieters to injuries and Chris Davis to a suspension for an amphetamine violation.
In the ALDS, the Orioles played just fine without them.
”We were relaxed. I think it helped being the underdogs,” Hardy said. ”It’s just going to get more fun.”