DETROIT — Suddenly, the breezy, nonchalant Oakland Athletics, who used timely hitting against Anibal Sanchez to take command of Monday’s Game 3, were facing off with the frustrated Detroit Tigers near the mound at Comerica Park, their closer Grant Balfour jawing with Victor Martinez, just three outs from a save.
The benches cleared, relievers who had been devouring sunflower seeds on this chilly afternoon were lumbering in from the bullpen to show support while Miguel Cabrera was chiding Balfour in his deep Venezuelan accent.
A polite, pitching-dominated series turned into a real tussle and the A’s walked away with an impressive 6-3 win as Balfour closed his mouth long enough to record the save and secure Oakland’s best performance of the series.
The A’s lead the best-of-five set, two games to one, with Game 4 at Comerica Park late Tuesday afternoon. Oakland, playing with a bunch of lower-salaried no-names, can reach the American League Championship Series for just the second time in the Billy Beane era with one more victory.
The fracas began when Martinez took offense to Balfour screaming after a foul ball on a 1-and-2 pitch, and Balfour had issue with Martinez staring him down. Matters were settled without physical incident and Martinez lined to right on the next pitch. Balfour issued a two-out walk but retired Omar Infante to end it.
After scraping together a ninth-inning run to salvage Game 2, 1-0, the A’s on Monday played with more confidence and passion than Detroit, as the sellout crowd at Comerica seemed numbed by the early start and cold weather. Brandon Moss, Seth Smith, and former Red Sox Josh Reddick each homered and the Oakland bullpen allowed just two hits over four innings.
Detroit hasn’t been the same since its three-run first inning against Bartolo Colon in Game 1. The Tigers, who led the major leagues in batting average and were second to the Red Sox in runs and on-base percentage, are hitting .188 with three runs scored since that series-opening inning.
Just moments after the Tigers mounted a three-run, four-hit rally to even the game in the fourth, Moss and Smith crushed homers off Sanchez to build the lead to 6-3.
Detroit grounded into double plays to end the fifth and sixth, and stranded a single runner in the seventh and eighth innings. Then came the Balfour-Martinez drama.
“I don’t know what happened, honestly, I know that Balfour is fiery on the mound,” Moss said. “He’s yelling a lot and spitting everywhere. It’s who he is. You know, something [that] can ruffle the feathers of other teams. Being a hitter, I can see where it’s frustrating and it can be in the moment, it can frustrate you a lot.”
Frustration has been the theme for the Tigers’ offense. Their payroll is $88 million more than the A’s and they were supposed to slug their way to a potential ALCS matchup with the Red Sox. Instead, they are being bested by a team whose lighthearted demeanor has become a staple of their playoff runs.
Those runs have come up short, so the A’s mentality is hardly jovial.
“We’ve had some heartbreakers against us,” third baseman Josh Donaldson said. “And we’ve broken some hearts as well. Either way, there’s really no roller coaster effect on this team. Everybody pretty much expects to do their job. You allow yourself to enjoy the game but like I said, we come in here expecting to win and when we do win, it’s not a surprise.”
Oakland has the series lead despite consecutive 11-strikeout performances from Detroit’s Game 1 and 2 starters, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. Sanchez, the AL leader in ERA during the regular season who allowed just four home runs after the All-Star break, was hittable from the outset.
Coco Crisp opened the game with a double. He then singled in the third, stole second base, and scored on an error by Cabrera for the game’s first run. In the fourth, Oakland used Reddick’s solo home run, Stephen Vogt’s triple, and Crisp’s sacrifice fly to extend the lead to 3-0.
The Tigers responded with four hits and three runs in the fourth against Jarrod Parker to even the game. But Sanchez gave up two more home runs in the next inning.
“He’s my guy and he did lead the league in earned run average,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said of Sanchez. “You figure he’s going to get out of it at any time because he’s good at making pitches. He obviously wasn’t sharp. He made a couple of real bad pitches the last inning he was out there to Moss and Smith. He just never got it going.”
The Oakland starters have allowed just six earned runs in 19 innings and the bullpen has yet to allow a run in eight frames. The A’s are winning this series much in the way they coasted to a division title.
“Every guy on our roster is important,” Donaldson said. “It’s just not a couple of guys here or there. I think that’s what makes us a special team.
“We want to take care of business [Tuesday]. We don’t want to let it get back to Oakland because if they get back to Oakland, they have a guy that’s pretty good who’s going to throw Game 5 [Scherzer].”Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe