By Will Burchfield
“Who are these guys?” the Baltimore Orioles must have been thinking.
More specifically, “Who’s that guy?”
Facing Michael Fulmer and the Detroit Tigers for the first time since May, Baltimore ran into a different pitcher and a different team on Friday night at Comerica Park. The Orioles got an up-close look at the Fulmer Phenomenon and a first-hand feel for the Tigers’ late-game vigor.
Now the two teams are tied in the standings, leaving little doubt as to what lies between them.
Perhaps the Orioles had heard of Fulmer’s rise. And surely they were aware of Detroit’s resurgence. But one could forgive them for being skeptical.
Back in May, it was a different story.
The Tigers stumbled into Baltimore having lost eight of nine games. The O’s quickly deepened Detroit’s woes, taking the first three games of the series. In the fourth and final game, a still-unproven Fulmer was tagged for five runs in 4.1 innings, raising his season ERA to 6.52.
Both he and his teammates limped out of Camden Yards, beaten down and weary.
If that was the image they left in the Orioles’ minds, they quickly erased it on Friday night.
In his best start since shutting out the Rangers on Aug. 14, Fulmer surrendered just two runs on three hits through seven smooth innings. And the Tigers offense delivered more late-game magic, this batch produced by Victor Martinez, who drilled a tie-breaking home run in the bottom of the eighth.
V-Mart took his time rounding the bases, but he was hardly limping. There was nothing weary about his trot. This was about savoring the moment, a moment that stands as the biggest of the Tigers’ season. At least until Saturday.
“As a baseball player, this is the type of atmosphere that you play for,” said Francisco Rodriguez, who picked up his 40th save of the year. “Every single game counts, the pressure, it’s a dogfight. We live for this moment so we just embrace it, enjoy it and find a way now to come out on top one way or the other.”
The Tigers found a way on Friday night in large part because of Fulmer. He kept the high-powered Orioles off balance with a pitch they hadn’t seen from him in May.
“I think the changeup was the big thing tonight. I remember last time I faced these guys I didn’t really have it yet,” he said.
He discovered it shortly thereafter, and mastered it in a flash. It’s the pitch that Fulmer credits for his success this season, the perfect complement to his mid-90’s fastball. And he was eager to use it on Friday night.
“I think I threw the changeup a lot more and a lot earlier, so I had it in the back of their minds,” he said. “Just kept it down for most of the time and it worked out well.”
“It was a weapon for him,” Ausmus said.
While Fulmer was stifling Orioles hitters, the Tigers offense was scrapping and clawing against Baltimore starter Kevin Gausman. Erick Aybar delivered a two-out RBI double in the third before J.D. Martinez stroked a two-out, two-run single in the fifth. On both occasions, the Tigers’ dugout leapt into celebration, the players hanging over the railing and high-fiving, gesturing like mad men to their teammates on the base paths.
September in Detroit felt nothing like May in Baltimore.
“There’s no question there’s more energy. Part of that is because last time we played Baltimore we had lost seven in a row and it’s tough to get your energy up,” said Ausmus. “The other part of it is because these games, there’s a lot more emphasis on the importance of winning.”
The Tigers were desperate for wins in their first meeting with the O’s as well, but in a panicked sort of manner. This time around, they’re driven by excitement.
“It was critical the first time but it was self-inflicted,” Ausmus explained. “This is critical because we’re coming down to the wire and the two teams are in similar situations from a standings perspective.”
“I think the guys in our clubhouse and our dugout understand that this is an important series, and they reacted as if it was,” he added.
Where the Tigers were sinking when they last met Baltimore, they are now rising. Where Fulmer was foundering, he is now cruising toward a historic rookie season. It’s no surprise that one development has coincided with the other, but the Orioles may have been caught off guard by both.
The Tigers made them pay.
“We know what we’re getting ourselves into,” said Rodriguez. “The [Orioles] are the team in front of us and in the second spot for the wild card…so we threw the first punch. Hopefully tomorrow we can come fresh again, come strong again, because every single game from now on will be extremely important.”