AL Division Series Preview: Detroit Tigers vs. Baltimore Orioles

Dan Duquette and Dave Dombrowski once worked together in the front office for the Montreal Expos helping lay the foundation for the famous 1994 team that could have won the World Series if not for the baseball strike and possibly faced the Yankees managed by Buck Showalter

Two decades later, both executives are responsible for turning around longtime American League franchises and doing so with some of the best offenses and pitching staffs in the American League.

That meeting will come to fruition Thursday night when Duquette’s Orioles host Dombrowski’s Tigers in the American League Division Series.

Dombrowski experienced four straight losing seasons to start his tenure with Detroit (2002-2005) but has a winning record in seven of the last eight seasons. Duquette has not been in charge of a team since 2002 when Peter Angelos hired him to rebuild a franchise that had not had a winning season and playoff appearance since 1997.

Both teams won their respective divisions though for the Orioles it was rather easy. The Orioles were in sole possession of first place every day since July 5 as they closed the year with a 50-27 record, a 77-game stretch that saw them score 336 runs, hit 106 home runs, and essentially wrapped up the division in mid-August.

Baltimore led the league with 211 home runs and had the third best earned run average at 3.44. However, if there’s an argument to be made against Baltimore’s offense it’s the fact that they were 11th in on-base percentage and were 13th in walks.

That being said, pitching to Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz is still a tall order for any pitching staff. Jones and Cruz combined for 69 home runs 204 RBI while also scoring 175 runs. That helped an offense that lost Manny Machado and Matt Wieters to season-ending injuries as well as Chris Davis to a suspension after he was batting under .200.

Besides those two in the middle of the order, Nick Markakis is a steady leadoff hitter. He had 14 home runs and batted .444 in the last week of the regular season after missing a few games with a shoulder injury.

For Jones and Markakis, this series can be viewed as a chance at redemption. Jones was 2-for-23 with six strikeouts in the 2012 division series loss to the Yankees while Markakis was unable to play due to injury.

The Orioles had a 2.52 ERA in the Division Series against the Yankees but none of those innings were thrown by Chris Tillman. Tillman was the top prospect in the same trade the landed Jones and has started to develop into a steady ace by going 13-6 with a 3.34 ERA after winning 16 games last season.

“Chris has graduated,” manager Buck Showalter said last week at Yankee Stadium when announcing that Tillman would start Game One. “It’s been a lot of fun to have a good seat to watch him. He’s a pro. He’s turned into a guy that I’m real proud of the way he goes about his business. It’s not always perfection, but you feel good about him giving you a chance to win.”

To continue his evolution, Tillman will have to contend with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, who drive a lineup that led the American League in hits, doubles, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS.

Cabrera had a “down year” but it was still pretty good as he batted .313 with 25 home runs and 109 RBI, using a September surge of .379, eight home runs and 18 RBI to head into the playoffs on a tear. Martinez batted .335 with 32 home runs and 103 RBI and although Mike Trout is the likely MVP winner and Jose Altuve won the batting title, Martinez is the best hitter.

A chance to win for Baltimore also depends on how it does against Detroit’s trio of former Cy Young Award winners in Max Scherzer, David Price and Justin Verlander.

Scherzer was 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA as he set career highs with 220 1/3 innings and 252 strikeouts. He went 3-0 with a 2.48 ERA in five September starts and two of those wins were over Kansas City.

Scherzer also is 3-0 with a 1.66 ERA in five division series starts. He opened last year’s Division Series with seven shutout innings and 11 strikeouts.

Price was 4-4 with a 3.59 ERA in 11 starts after being acquired from Tampa Bay at the trade deadline. He had a 1.69 ERA in his last two starts and pitched 7 1/3 scoreless innings against the White Sox on Sunday to clinch the AL Central.

The real wild card could be Justin Verlander. Verlander was 15-12 with a 4.54 ERA but 3-1 with a 3.89 ERA in five September starts. In the postseason, Verlander is 7-5 with a 3.28 ERA in 15 starts and in this round he is 4-0 with a 1.79 ERA in seven Division Series starts.

Of course for all of the talk and buzz about Detroit’s rotation, that could become irrelevant if its bullpen struggles. While the Orioles’ relievers are among the best, Detroit’s were among the worst with a 4.29 ERA, 1.48 WHIP and .270 batting average against.

Each team has its questions and concerns. The one that answers them better or makes them a non-issue is the one that gets to advance.

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