When the Detroit Tigers (24-12) traveled to Camden Yards for a three-game series with the Baltimore Orioles (20-18), both teams stood comfortably atop their divisions thanks to recent hot streaks against American League bottom-feeders.
But what started as just a matchup between two first-place teams turned into a battle for pride in the eighth inning of game one on Friday.
It was a battle that the Tigers definitively won.
After Ian Kinsler hit a two-run home run to give Detroit a comfortable 4-1 lead in the top of the eighth, starter Bud Norris hit Torii Hunter with a fastball on the next pitch and sparked a fire. Hunter showed his frustration by veering off towards the pitcher’s mound on his way to first base, yelling at Norris and drawing both teams out of their dugouts.
While no punches were thrown during the confrontation, it set the tone for what turned out to be one of the best series in baseball thus far.
Joe Nathan polished off the victory on Monday, retiring the Orioles in order on just six pitches. Nathan dominated Baltimore throughout the series, recording a save in all three games and allowing just one hit in three scoreless innings. The 39-year-old's ERA plummeted from 4.26 to 3.45 during the three-game set.
Boxscore: Detroit wins game one 4-1
Baltimore started game two with a bang, as Adam Jones mashed a 351-foot home run well over the left field wall to give his team an early 1-0 lead. Ubaldo Jimenez shut Detroit down for seven innings, striking out seven hitters while just five reached base. The Tiger bats stayed silent in the eighth inning against unconventional righty Darren O'Day before coming alive in a big way in the ninth inning.
Alex Avila began the inning by pushing a dribbling ground ball down the third baseline that beat an overshift and put the tying run on base against closer Tommy Hunter. Manager Brad Ausmus inserted Rajai Davis into the game to pinch run, and Davis was initially called out stealing second base in what stands as one of the biggest plays in the series. The umpires checked the replay and, after over two minutes of studying, decided that Davis got his hand on the base before the tag.
After two straight lineouts, Hunter worked the Baltimore closer for a two-out walk after being down in the count 1-2. Miguel Cabrera came to the plate and hit the most memorable home run of the season to date: A 401-foot three-run shot into the Baltimore bullpen that gave Detroit its first runs, and first lead of the game.
Amid the fiery celebrations in the Tiger dugout, Victor Martinez turned on the next Hunter offering and uncorked a 403-foot blast over the right field wall and out onto Eutaw Street. The outburst silenced a previously-raucous Baltimore crowd and gave Detroit its second win in a row.
Boxscore: Detroit rallies to win game two 4-1
The Orioles hoped to salvage one game from the series behind No. 2 prospect Kevin Gausman, who made his first start of the season on Wednesday. Detroit buried the youngster after four innings, scoring five runs on six hits. Detroit held a 6-0 lead when Baltimore charged back with five runs in the fifth inning, but the bullpen blanked the home team for three innings to give the Tigers a 7-5 victory and a series sweep.
Boxscore: Tigers finish sweep with 7-5 win
What did this series mean for the Tigers? Baltimore sat atop what many consider the toughest division in Major League Baseball heading into the series and had won five of its last six games. But the Tigers dominated the Orioles in a variety of ways: A pitcher's duel in game one, a ninth-inning comeback in game two and a slugfest in game three.
The sweep earned the Tigers the best road record in the MLB at 11-4, which is far better than the team's record at Comerica Park (13-8). At this point last season, Detroit owned a 9-10 record away from home and shared first place with the Cleveland Indians.
More importantly, this series demonstrated exactly why the Tigers are the favorites to take home the World Series trophy this October.
Every championship run starts with starting pitching, and the Detroit starters have been better than any rotation in baseball through 36 games. Six starting pitchers have combined for a 2.79 ERA for the Tigers this season, which is easily the best in the MLB. In fact, the worst ERA for a starter is Drew Smyly's 3.29, which would have been the third-best in the rotation during Detroit's 2013 run to the ALCS. The staff owns an 18-8 record and has struck out more hitters (197) than surrendered hits (182).
The standout performer of the season has been 25-year-old Rick Porcello, who leads the team in wins (6) and has surrendered just six walks in over 44 innings pitched. Porcello is enjoying a breakout year in his sixth campaign in Detroit, giving Ausmus six or more innings in all but one start.
Alongside Porcello is Max Scherzer, who is building off of a Cy Young season by improving his all-around numbers. Scherzer owns an improved ERA (2.04), a higher strikeout rate (11.21 K/9) and is on pace for another 20-win season.
Smyly and Porcello each allowed one run in six innings in their Baltimore starts, while Justin Verlander crusied through four innings before surrendering five runs in the fifth on Wednesday. The three combined for two wins and 13 strikeouts in 18 innings.
Though the starting pitching represents Detroit's most obvious strength, a resurgent bullpen surfaced during the Baltimore series and played a crucial role in the sweep. Ausmus asked his bullpen to go three innings in each game, and five pitchers combined to twirl nine scoreless innings over the stretch.
Al Alburquerque and Ian Krol each earned two holds during games one and three en route to giving Nathan a chance to slam the door in the ninth innings. Justin Miller was the unsung hero during the comeback on Tuesday, pitching two innings and picking up the victory.
A bullpen that ranked among the worst in the country less than a week ago has lowered its ERA to a collective 4.50 during an impressive start to the month of May. Krol and Alburquerque have settled down and become consistent lefty and righty matchups in the earlier innings while Joba Chamberlain and Nathan have been largely dominant in the eighth and ninth, respectively. Their efforts have moved Detroit into second in the American League with an overall 3.34 ERA.
On the other side of the field, a struggling Tigers offense showed flashes of improvement in Camden Yards. Though Detroit scored in just seven of the 27 total innings, the offense put up multiple runs in five of those innings and scored during important stretches of each game. Detroit struggled for seven innings against Norris before Kinsler's timely home run in the eighth inning gave the bullpen some breathing room in game one. On the following night, a four-run ninth was the most dramatic display of power from the Tigers this season. On Wednesday, tack-on runs in the fifth and sixth innings helped the bullpen hang on by a thread and earn the sweep.
Martinez continued to set the pace for Detroit, picking up two hits in each game and raising his batting average to an AL-best .336. The 35-year-old also leads the elite offense in home runs, on base percentage and slugging percentage. Martinez is hitting 125 points better than a year ago, when his average fell to .211. He is already approaching last season's home run total of 14.
Cabrera also had a productive series, hitting .333 (4/12) with seven RBI. Despite a slow start, the two-time MVP is second in the AL in RBI behind Jose Abreu with 35.
Teammate Kinsler added four RBI and three runs in Baltimore while recording his team-leading 46th hit.
Though the team picked up three wins during the trip, two of the Tiger starters are happy that Baltimore is behind them. Austin Jackson and Nick Castellanos struggled in the middle of the lineup, hitting a combined 0-17 in the three games. Jackson's hitless performance came after he entered Monday on a nine-game hitting streak. His average fell from .301 to .276 during the stretch.
Danny Worth is silently making a strong case for the starting shortstop position amid the struggles of offensively-challenged youngster Andrew Romine. Romine failed to reach base during the first two games of the series, going 0-7 with two strikeouts. Worth got a chance on Wednesday and picked up two hits, two RBI and a run to raise his average to .286 on the season. Worth has double the number of RBI (5) than Romine (2) despite playing in just nine games. Romine has only one extra-base hit in 26 games this season, a double against the Twins on April 25.
In 2013 the Tigers featured a similar combination of lights-out pitching and explosive hitting, but the 2014 team brings the added threat of speed to the ballpark. Detroit stole five bases off of the Oriole pitchers, giving Detroit the most stolen bases in the AL and tying the team's total from all 162 games last season (35). Davis is leading the charge with his 13 steals, but Jackson has been more willing to run as well, swiping six bags thus far.
Detroit maintained its lead in the MLB standings, leading the San Francisco Giants by percentage points and the Oakland Athletics by 1.5 games in the AL. The Tigers are running away with the AL Central Division, leading the Royals by six games and the 2013 playoff participant Cleveland Indians by 7.5 games.
The Tigers will travel to Boston on Friday night to continue the nine-game road trip, seeking revenge for last season's ALCS loss.