The win kept the Tigers atop the American League Central, still one-half game ahead of Minnesota after the Twins' comeback victory earlier on Tuesday night. A loss would have not only knocked Detroit out of first, but into a second-place tie with the White Sox, who also won Tuesday.
That loss seemed likely on a couple of occasions in regulation, and distinctly possible in extras, as the Orioles mounted threat after threat against Detroit's bullpen. Baltimore held a 4-1 lead heading into the bottom of the eighth, stranded the would-be tying run on third after triples from Miguel Cabrera and Brandon Inge fueled a rally, then tacked on an insurance run for a two-run lead heading into the bottom of the ninth.
The add-on run should have given O's closer Alfredo Simon some license to attack the middle of the Tigers' order. He was facing Detroit's feared hitters, but a lone run meant nothing.
Then came Damon, who worked a full-count walk to lead off the inning and bring the would-be tying run to the plate. Simon geared up for Magglio Ordonez and blew three straight fastballs by him for a big first out, but he had to face Cabrera, just added to the roster for next week's State Farm All-Star Home Run Derby.
"We said, 'OK, this game is not over,'" Cabrera said. "'Let's go out there and make something happen.'"
Cabrera's first-pitch swing looked like it was meant for the Derby, a hard hack that missed a low fastball. After Simon missed on the next pitch, Cabrera didn't miss when Simon tried to come back with a low changeup.
It was a no-doubt drive down the left-field line, at least no doubt for Damon.
"I knew right away that it was going to be fair," Damon said. "And at that moment, I felt we had a very good chance to win, especially with the guys from our bullpen coming in. We have a lot of faith in them."
Damon couldn't have figured that he would have the chance to do it. He had his moment of glory with his third-inning single through the middle for hit No. 2,500, drawing a lengthy standing ovation from fans who might have been stuck to their seats on a scorching-hot evening.
"It meant the world to me," Damon said. "I know I'm having an OK year here. Obviously, I would like to hit better with guys in scoring position. But for them to react the way they did for me, it's special. I knew the fans here were great."
Damon was batting .175 over his previous 14 games entering Tuesday, but he was feeling somewhat better about his swing. Once Austin Jackson led off the bottom of the 11th with a soft liner to center field off David Hernandez (3-7), Damon had the chance for an encore.
His renewed confidence paid off once back-to-back fastballs put Damon in an 0-2 hole.
"I'm trying to still get a strike," he said. "So many times in my career, I've been able to turn an 0-2 count into a walk or a base hit. So just being around for so long, it helps me. I know there's going to be tough times when you're 0-2 and you feel like you've got no chance, but I feel like I've been swinging the bat better lately, and I feel like my balance at the plate is there right now and hopefully it can continue."
Damon could've gone into protective mode at the plate, fouling off pitches to stay alive. But the 0-2 pitch he got wasn't one to defend.
"He tried sneaking one down and in on me," Damon said. "He went fastballs up and away on the first two. Actually it wasn't that bad of a pitch, but I feel like my swing's been pretty close to where I want it to be. That pitch just happened to be just right."
Said Hernandez: "I threw the first two fastballs for strikes and he hit the third one out. Obviously it was a missed location and he hit it over the fence, so it's probably not where I should have thrown it."
Like Cabrera's game-tying blast, Damon's game-winner was a no-doubt shot. After getting a milestone hit, his follow-up was a victory lap around the bases and a bottle of champagne in the locker room.
"I'm glad we do have the 2,500th hit," he said. "But that 2,501st was definitely a little more special."