Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter would be the first to tell you much of the foundation of the Orioles’ run to their first American League Championship Series since 1997 was in place before they arrived in Baltimore several years ago.
Others may have been responsible for bringing the likes of Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, J.J. Hardy, and Zach Britton to Baltimore years ago, but it was Duquette’s fingerprints all over the Orioles’ 2-1 victory to complete the three-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers on Sunday. In fact, a trio of acquisitions made over the last 15 months — winning pitcher Bud Norris, slugger Nelson Cruz, and lefty reliever Andrew Miller — played a critical part in Baltimore sweeping its first postseason series since 1971 and sending the big-name Tigers home for the offseason.
Acquired in exchange for unspectacular outfield prospect L.J. Hoes, 19-year-old pitching prospect Josh Hader, and a draft pick in late July of last season, Norris may not have made the difference in 2013 as the Orioles fell short of the postseason, but the reasonable asking price as well as two extra years of club control made the former Houston Astros pitcher more attractive to Duquette than other seasoned pitchers with expensive or expiring contracts on the trade market.
Making his postseason debut after Miguel Gonzalez was initially slated to pitch in Game 3, Norris pitched 6 1/3 shutout innings while striking out six and allowing two hits to shut down a formidable Detroit lineup that had given him plenty of trouble in two starts earlier this season. Commanding his four-seam fastball and keeping the Tigers scoreless as the Orioles faced 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner David Price, Norris offered a gutsy performance to build on a strong campaign that included a 15-8 record with a 3.65 ERA in 28 starts this season.
It was Cruz who provided Norris with just enough run support as he homered inside the right-field foul pole in the top of the sixth to give the Orioles a 2-0 lead. It was the 34-year-old’s second homer of the series and 16th career postseason homer to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time list, which came after a 40-homer season that resulted in him being named the club’s most valuable player in late September.
No, Cruz wasn’t a diamond in the rough despite no club being willing to invest a long-contract in a player tainted and suspended due to last year’s Biogenesis scandal, but Duquette saw the opportunity to add a slugger on the cheap for a lineup that needed another middle-of-the-order bat. A one-year, $8 million investment made during spring training has never worked out better for the Orioles as Cruz responded with the best season of his 10-year career.
After carrying the Orioles through the first 2 1/2 months of the season and heating up once again over the final few weeks of September, Cruz once again was the offensive hero as the Orioles faced a third straight Cy Young Award winner on Sunday at Comerica Park. His flick of the bat on a high and outside pitch from Price put the Orioles ahead and further depressed what was already a subdued crowd watching their Tigers try to climb out of an 0-2 hole.
The heroics of Norris and Cruz paved the way for Miller, the acquisition that most of baseball ignored while Oakland acquired Jon Lester and the Tigers traded for Price. Those high-profile trades for aces were viewed by many experts as the moves that would automatically send the Athletics and Detroit to a meeting in the ALCS
Miller retired all five hitters he faced in Game 3, including the top three hitters in the Tigers lineup in the bottom of the eighth inning. While many criticized — or at least questioned — the Orioles’ inability to land a top-of-the-rotation starter at the trade deadline, Duquette dealt pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez to the Boston Red Sox for the tall left-hander, who’s dominance has transformed the Orioles bullpen from good to great over the last two months.
Pitching to a 1.35 ERA and averaging 15.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 23 regular-season appearances for Baltimore, Miller’s 32-pitch performance in Game 1 matched his highest total of the year and he allowed only one runner in 3 1/3 innings in the ALDS.
No, it wasn’t the sexy move and it’s not as though Lester or Price pitched poorly in their new homes, but Duquette and Showalter have constantly preached the desire to acquire players that are the right fit for their club — not necessarily the biggest or most expensive names. Miller certainly fit the bill as a reliever with great strikeout ability and excellent numbers against hitters from both sides of the plate.
And it’s a move that’s been an integral part of the Orioles continuing to play in October while the Tigers and Athletics have already been eliminated.
The Orioles’ executive vice president of baseball operations has often been teased by outsiders for his decade-long absence from the majors as well as his off-the-wall moves that many have even labeled dumpster diving. Not every move has turned to gold — he did sign high-priced free agent Ubaldo Jimenez, after all — but you couldn’t help but tip your cap to Duquette in watching Sunday’s game play out with the Orioles earning the series win.
A one-year contract and two deadline trades that appeared solid but unspectacular couldn’t have paid off any better in Game 3. And while Duquette may not have built the entire core of the current club from the ground up, the pieces he’s added in recent months have helped put the Orioles four wins away from an American League pennant.