Tillman sets the Tone
A lot has transpired since Chris Tillman took the mound early Thursday evening at Camden Yards for Game #1, so it is easy to forget how great Tillman was in that inning.
Facing the formidable top three in Detroit’s lineup – Ian Kinsler, Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera – the O’s ace needed only 14 pitches to record three strikeouts. He threw 11 of those 14 pitches for strikes. He reached 96+ MPH on three occasions and hit 95+ MPH on six occasions. Six of his elevens strikes that inning were the swinging variety. All three K’s were the result of well-executed fastballs that the Tiger batters swung right through.
People like to talk about “statements” in baseball games, but I am not sure they exist – at least not as standalone moments. Had the Orioles lost the first game or the series, nobody would call Tillman striking out the side in the first while displaying unusually high velocity a “statement”. It is only due to what happened afterwards (the O’s taking the game and the series) that the inning can possibly be viewed in that light.
What Tillman did do, however, was get the game – and therefore the series – off on a positive foot, which is always (especially in the playoffs) a very positive happening in its own right.
“We Won’t Stop! We Won’t Stop!”
Readers of this blog may or may not know that in addition to being overly obsessed baseball fans, we are also pretty big pro wrestling fans. You also may or may not know that in wrestling – for better or worse – the preferred method of fan-to-performer communication is the chant. Chanting – as a generality – is one of the lowest form of communications. Its often just a step above grunting.
Having said that, sometimes – at wrestling shows or sporting event – a chant is all we have as fans to get our point across. And when a chant is delivered with true, unbridled joy and passion, it can rise above its simplistic, caveman grunting-like roots into a moving demonstration of emotion.
When fans broke out with a “We Won’t Stop!” chant during the Oriole onslaught in Game #1 and again during the eighth inning comeback in Game #2, you could feel the emotion behind it. Baltimore – right or wrong – is a city with a serious chip on its shoulder. The modern day Orioles are perennial underdogs; always overlooked by the media even when they shouldn’t be. The sentiment behind that chant – that no matter what obstacles or what lies ahead, we won’t stop moving forward – fits this city and this team perfectly. You could hear it in the chants. This wasn’t a chant meant to boast or draw attention. It was a heartfelt motto delivered with real passion.
The baseball gods have blessed fans of the Orioles with many thrilling moments over the past three seasons. However, for all of the O’s success over those years, there have not been an overwhelming number of instantaneous, season changing, storybook moments. You know what I mean – those “only in sports moments” when 47,000 fans all want one big, huge, gigantic thing to happen and then it actually (unbelievably) does.
Delmon Young’s bases clearing double Friday afternoon in game two was one of those moments.
With the shaky Detroit bullpen once again up against the ropes and the O’s down by a score of 6-4 in the 8th inning, everyone in the stadium wanted Delmon to get a big bases loaded hit to at least tie the score and give the O’s a chance to go up two games to none in the division series. Truthfully, if those of us in the stadium could have written the script, Delmon probably would hit a grand slam, but a bases-clearing double would have certainly been an acceptable alternate ending.
When you want and hope for an improbable or unlikely moment to happen in sports and then it does, there is nothing better. The pure explosion of sound and emotion when J.J. Hardy touched home plate just ahead of Alex Avilla’s tag was something I have never seen in my 25+ years as an Orioles fan. I couldn’t hear myself think. There was not one person in my vicinity that wasn’t high-fiving a stranger. One fan - a complete stranger - sitting near us was so overjoyed that he gave my mom a full on hug.
That is just about as good as a sports moment can get.
“We are going to walk this guy. The next guy is going to hit into a double play, and we are going to go home.”
Just when you thought the legend of Buck Showalter could not get any bigger in Baltimore, this happened.
Orioles closer Zach Britton began the ninth inning of Game #3 on Sunday by allowing back to back doubles that cut the Birds’ lead in half. Zach struck out the next batter which kept the runner at 2nd and gave the O’s one out on the inning. With rookie Nick Castellanos due up, Buck – uncharacteristically – marched to the mound in a non-pitching change situation. According to Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post, Buck took charge of the situation in a way only he could. The talk was equal parts strategy, motivational, reassuring, and threatening.
It also proved prophetic.
Britton – who later revealed he was on-board with the walk plan before Buck even reached the mound – intentionally walked Castellanos and then immediately induced the series-ending double play. Just as Buck said would happen. This is movie-script stuff. It was also Buck at his finest, finding a way to push all of the right buttons at just the right time.
The Cy Young Hit List
Much was made before, during and after the series about the fact that Detroit started the last three American League Cy Young winners during the ALDS– something that had never been done before. During their post-game celebration on Sunday, the Orioles’ Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Tommy Hunter gathered around a publicity photo (printed on the official Tigers' scorecard) that showed the jerseys of Detroit’s three ace pitchers – Max Scherzer, David Price and Justin Verlander – hanging on their lockers. Using a black marker, Jones drew an “X” over the Price jersey, which joined “X’s” already marked on the jerseys of Scherzer and Verlander in the picture. Hunter hung the picture on a locker for all to see.
Three Cy Young award winners, three Tiger loses.
The picture – complete with the black ‘X’ marks – was symbolic. The Orioles have faced obstacles the entire 2014 season. They twice went without Manny Machado due to injury. They lost their cornerstone – catcher Matt Wieters – to Tommy John surgery in June. Chris Davis is currently serving a 25-game suspension. The team was supposed to finish last even before those hits, but they never stopped moving forward in route to winning the American League East and 96 regular season games.
The final roadblock – the one that was finally supposed to stop this "overachieving" bunch dead in their tracks – was the Detroit Tigers. The reason the Tigers were going to stop the runaway O’s once and for all was because of their embarrassing riches of starting pitching. Instead, the Birds tore right through the Tigers and their vaunted staff for a 3-game sweep.
The defaced photo was not a malicious or cold act, as some have tried to paint it as. It was symbolic. It was symbolic of a team void of true top level superstars running through a team chalk full of them, up to and including their starting rotation. As the media rightfully pointed out throughout the series, the Tigers starters are very good. Why shouldn't the Orioles be proud of making their way through that murderer's row of a rotation? These Orioles don't boast much, but when they do, they sure make it count.