Of all the challenges the Tigers have faced on their way to baseball's best road record, this might have been their best since Joe Nathan's dead-arm phase in Los Angeles a month ago. Like so many other times this year, they answered, seeing a six-run lead whittled but never erased for a 7-5 victory Wednesday over the O's at Camden Yards.
The Tigers have won three consecutive division titles by dominating opponents at Comerica Park. They headed to Boston for Thursday's off-day and the weekend's American League Championship Series rematch with the best record in baseball at 24-12 on the strength of an 11-4 record away from Detroit. Their eight-game road winning streak is their longest since May of 2006, the stretch that elevated them from a hot start to legit contenders, and the fifth-longest in franchise history.
"I think that's the part where we stay together, we stay within ourselves and we're having fun," said Joe Nathan, who closed out all three wins in the series. "When you go on the road, into a hostile environment, and everybody else is against you, you really need to stick together as a team moreso. And I think that part of us enjoying this game is really important when we're on the road."
The Tigers swept a three-game series in Baltimore for the first time since 2005, and they did it with variety. After winning Monday's series opener on Rick Porcello's latest strong start, and rallying Tuesday on the power of Miguel Cabrera's ninth-inning home run, they picked the O's apart.
"You want to win the series," manager Brad Ausmus said. "It's increasingly tough on the road. To come away with a sweep against a very good team like the Orioles is a huge bonus. We'll get out of town before they decide to add a fourth game to the series."
Between Verlander's standing and Kevin Gausman's spot start, Wednesday's end result wasn't a surprise. The way they got there was anything but expected.
It figured, then, that on a day when backup catcher Bryan Holaday scored twice and drove in another run, utility infielder Danny Worth turned Ausmus' first called squeeze bunt into an RBI single and Victor Martinez stole his second base of the year, the Orioles would finally get to Verlander in a stadium he has largely owned.
It figured, too, that the Tigers might have set up some of that themselves. And that's when the factors that Nathan talked about came into play.
"There's no panic in this team," Nathan said. "Everyone here is relaxed, goes out, plays the game and enjoys the game, which is the most important thing."
They enjoyed it as they pieced together one run after another off hard-throwing Orioles prospect Gausman, whose fastball gave them fits for 2 1/3 innings before they got to him in the third. Cabrera got his RBI opportunity again, stepping to the plate with the bases loaded in the third inning, but it was a simple two-out single that delivered two runs of damage and put Detroit ahead for good once again.
An inning later, the Tigers used a double steal to put runners in scoring position for Holaday's second single of the game and Worth's squeeze.
Holaday had laid down a bunt with a runner on third last road trip in Chicago, but he had done so on his own, even though Ausmus had tried to call for it. This time, the call was clear.
"There's certain guys you know can handle a squeeze," Ausmus said, "and [Worth is] one of them."
Worth's roller down the first-base line not only scored Don Kelly, it left O's first baseman Chris Davis with no play at first. The extra out led to another run on Rajai Davis' sacrifice fly.
Once Kelly singled home Martinez in the top of the fifth, Verlander had a 6-0 lead at a ballpark where he was unbeaten in seven career outings. But by the time the fifth inning was over, he was holding on at 6-5.
All five runs scored with two outs, and all four hits in the rally came on breaking balls. But it was the fastball behind Cruz an inning earlier, coming off Monday's benches-clearing incident after Bud Norris hit Torii Hunter, that the O's say got them going.
"We knew it was going to come at some point this series," Steve Clevenger said. "It is what it is. And it kind of fired us up and woke us up a bit."
Verlander insisted it wasn't intentional. Cruz, who gestured to the mound afterward, might have disputed that.
Cruz singled on the next pitch, but couldn't get a run in. Once Manny Machado walked to extend the fifth, three consecutive run-scoring hits from the middle of the Orioles order knocked him around. Cruz's three-run home run came on a curveball that was diving for the dirt.
"I think it was going to bounce," Holaday said. "But he's a great hitter."
Verlander settled down from there to last six innings, and Rajai Davis' home run added a cushion. Three more times, however, the O's brought the tying or go-ahead runs to the plate against Detroit's bullpen.
Joba Chamberlain brushed off a close pitch for ball four to ninth hitter David Lough to strand the bases loaded against Nick Markakis in the eighth inning, leaving Markakis hitless for the series. Nathan didn't get the called third strike he wanted on Chris Davis in the ninth, bringing up ex-teammate Cruz for one more chance as the would-be tying run, but the closer escaped with a groundout.
It was another win close to home for Verlander, who improved to 7-0 in eight starts at Camden Yards. It was another road challenge met for Detroit.
"Winning as a team is what matters, and obviously today was a great team effort," Verlander said.