Three keys for the Tigers in ALDS vs. Orioles

Three keys for the Tigers in ALDS vs. Orioles

DETROIT -- The Tigers took care of their division race on the final day of the regular season. Monday begins the task of preparing for the Orioles, who have been waiting for days to find out their Division Series opponent since wrapping up the American League East early.

It's a vastly different squad than the Tigers remember from going 5-1 against them in April and May, but the keys to beating them in the best-of-five ALDS beginning on Thursday night at Camden Yards should be relatively familiar. Some involved old faces and familiar strategies. Others involve using the playoff roster to strengthen their own soft spots.

Pitch carefully to Cruz
The Tigers need no reminder of what Nelson Cruz can do in a postseason series. Three years have passed since he homered six times off Detroit pitching in a six-game ALCS as a member of the Rangers in 2011, but Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer gave up three of them. That comprises just under half of his 14 career homers in 137 postseason at-bats. His MLB-best 40 home runs in the regular season include one off a Verlander breaking ball near the ankles that he essentially golfed into the Camden Yards seats.

Cruz was already going to have the Tigers' attention. With Chris Davis out until at least the

  Date   Matchup/Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 2   BAL 12, DET 3 video
Gm 2 Oct. 3   BAL 7, DET 6 video
Gm 3 Oct. 5   BAL 2, DET 1 video
ALCS, the emphasis becomes even greater. Adam Jones has hit the Tigers well over the years (.306 lifetime, 8-for-23 with five runs scored and four RBIs this year), but Cruz is the one hitter who can truly change a game with one swing -- and has changed Tigers postseason fortunes that way.

The Tigers can generally live with Cruz singles. But they have to keep him in the park.

Do your damage early
The Orioles have a dominant late-game relief trio in closer Zach Britton and setup men Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day, the primary reasons why Baltimore owns the third-best ERA among AL bullpens and led the league in saves this year. Opponents are batting .216 against the O's from the eighth inning on. Though the Tigers won a game in Baltimore in May with late-inning heroics, capitalizing on a three-run home run from Miguel Cabrera in the ninth inning off then-closer Hunter, the odds of a repeat appear slim.

That leaves the O's rotation, where the talent is evident but not necessarily overpowering. Chris Tillman earned their only win against the Tigers this year with 8 1/3 innings of five-hit, one-run ball on April 6 at Comerica Park, but struck out just five the process. His control is his key, but five different Tigers have hit home runs against him in his career.

Take advantage of Sanchez and Soria
The postseason game plan for teams facing the Tigers isn't new: Work counts, make the pitcher sweat, run up the pitch count, and get to the bullpen. It was in effect long before Joe Nathan became Detroit's closer. The Orioles could be wise to try for it, though they finished near the bottom of the league in walks drawn.

For all the scrutiny the Tigers bullpen has taken this year, however, it has two relatively fresh arms who could be difference makers. Joakim Soria is the obvious one, having returned from the disabled list a couple weeks ago and lacking a regular role since. Manager Brad Ausmus had been keeping him in reserve for late-inning struggles by Joba Chamberlain and Nathan, but has started using him as the seventh-inning setup man, a potentially huge move in the postseason. It's not the ninth-inning role some might like, but it's an inning that has proven just about as important for the Tigers in past Octobers.

The other bullpen addition is relatively flexible. Though Anibal Sanchez became the odd man out among the starters when he missed a month and a half with a right pectoral muscle strain, he still has some of the best stuff on the pitching staff. He just doesn't have his arm stretched out. His combination of pitching repertoire and postseason experience gives him the opportunity to take on a bigger role than any converted starter in the Tigers postseason bullpen over the past few years.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.