The Orioles were flying so high after Friday night's ninth-inning comeback that the air apparently got a little too thin. The big-swinging Tigers pierced the sky four times in an eight-run explosion in the top of the fourth inning that all but evened the series before late-afternoon shadows could reach the pitcher's mound.
The assault was so quick and unmerciful that it rendered Tigers ace Justin Verlander almost irrelevant. It certainly put an end to any talk of a pitching duel with No. 1 Orioles starter Jason Hammel, since he was gone before the baseballs stopped raining in the stands.
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Really, the only intrigue was provided by Hammel himself, who surrendered back-to-back-to-back home runs and then bounced an 82-mph slider off the shoulder of Detroit left fielder Matt Tuiasosopo, prompting home-plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt to risk an oblique injury with an ejection that began before the ball hit the ground.
The resulting brouhaha lasted several minutes as Hammel and Orioles manager Buck Showalter tried to make the case that no pitcher with evil intent would go headhunting with a bending offspeed pitch.
It wasn't like Wendelstedt suddenly was going to see the error of his ways and reverse his decision. The guy had just given up three straight homers, then hit the next batter four inches below his jaw. How much longer was he going to be out there, anyway?
That's not the point, of course.
The umpire is not required to give a warning before ejecting a player or manager, but he is expected to take into account whether the pitcher actually was trying to hit somebody. The Orioles obviously felt that Wendelstedt acted too quickly, and while they may have been right, the ejection probably achieved the best result for all concerned.
Think about it: Hammel was struggling with his command and running up his pitch count in a duel with one of the best pitchers in baseball. He likely would have stayed around a while longer, since the three solo homers made the score only 4-1, but the Tigers were knocking him silly. Another another errant inside pitch could have inflamed things to the point where somebody might have gotten hurt.
The Orioles certainly wouldn't have wanted to give Verlander license to retaliate with a big lead, especially after losing Nick Markakis for the stretch run and postseason last year because of a fractured thumb after he was hit with an inside pitch from the New York Yankees' CC Sabathia. Hammel and Showalter may have been hopping mad in the heat of the moment, but Showalter acknowledged both sides of the issue after the game.
“It's tough on umpires trying to judge intent, but they get a lot of pressure from the league office to try and keep stuff like that [under control],'' Showalter said. “Obviously, we're biased, but I understand what the umpires are trying to do.”
Losing Hammel that early did put a big strain on the bullpen. Left-hander T.J. McFarland came on to allow the inherited runner to score and then loaded the bases for 2012 American League Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. You know the rest.
Which brings us back to the intangible and largely unexplainable concept of momentum, something the Orioles seemed to have in abundance after Chris Dickerson launched that dramatic three-run homer off the Tigers' Jose Valverde Friday.
The old-timers like to say that momentum is only as good as your next day's starting pitcher, and that was true to an extent Saturday.
Hammel was all over the place and the Tigers were all over him, but you had to figure that the Orioles were starting from square one with Verlander on the mound and the likes of Cabrera and Prince Fielder smarting from the indignity of Friday.
The Tigers hit five home runs — Nos. 3 to 7 in their lineup each had one — and became the first team to hit that many in a game against the Orioles since the Yankees did so on Aug. 28, 2011.
The Orioles can only hope that Detroit got all that pent-up aggression out before it faces face rookie Kevin Gausman in the rubber game of the series today.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.