DETROIT — It seems as if desperation won out Tuesday evening at Comerica Park as the bumbling Tigers, with their lofty payroll, big boppers, and fireballing pitching staff were on the verge of succumbing to the underdog A’s.
Such circumstances forced manager Jim Leyland to make some unusual moves in Game 4, such as bring potential Game 5 starter Max Scherzer out of the bullpen in the seventh inning, while hoping his struggling lineup could produce key hits against an Oakland bullpen that had been impeccable.
His moves worked as Detroit won, 8-6, ensuring a winner-take-all Game 5 for the O.co Coliseum on Thursday.
Scherzer barely held the fort, allowing one run in the seventh and escaping a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the eighth with Cy Young-type pitching.
“I was wild tonight. I didn’t have my best command, but when it counted with full counts, I was able to execute some pitches and that’s what allowed me to be successful,” Scherzer said. “It was surreal to be able to get an out in that situation and keep the one-run lead with the bases loaded, no outs in the eighth inning. That’s the stuff you dream of. To be able to get out of that jam, that’s something I’ll never forget.”
Meanwhile, the A’s bullpen was collapsing at the worst possible time.
In the bottom of the seventh, Victor Martinez tied the game with a fan-aided leadoff homer and strikeout machine Austin Jackson’s single put the Tigers ahead for good.
In the eighth, after getting the first two outs, the Tigers strung together a single, two walks, a wild pitch and a two-run double to tie the American League Division Series at two games apiece.
Doug Fister started and pitched the first six, allowing seven hits and three runs. But Scherzer, the Tigers’ 21-game winner, got credit for his second win of the series. He threw 47 pitches on three days’ rest and then escaped the eighth-inning jam.
With the Tigers leading, 5-4, but the bases full of A’s, Scherzer struck out former Red Sox Josh Reddick on a cutter 18 inches inside and then followed by whiffing Stephen Vogt.
Pinch hitter Alberto Callaspo followed with a sinking liner to center that Jackson grabbed on the run.
Detroit needed all the support as Joaquin Benoit allowed two runs in the ninth, but struck out Seth Smith, the potential tying run, to conclude an unusual game.
Up 4-3 in the seventh, the A’s just needed solid relief to close out their second ALDS win when Sean Doolittle allowed a soaring liner to right-center. Reddick prepared to catch the ball with a leap at the wall, but a fan leaned over the fence and touched the ball. Initially called a home run, the six-man umpiring crew consulted video and confirmed their ruling, tying the game at 4.
Doolittle, one of Oakland’s more reliable middle relievers, then allowed a double to Jhonny Peralta and two outs and a walk later, yielded the decisive RBI single to Jackson.
After eight scoreless frames in the first three games, Oakland relievers were touched for four earned runs in two innings Tuesday.
“We put a lot of faith in our bullpen,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. “One of the reasons we are where we are is because of our bullpen. It just didn’t happen tonight.”
On the other side, Scherzer was pumped by his two-inning performance. He was scheduled to start Game 5, but told Leyland early Tuesday that he had enough on three days’ rest to pitch in relief.
Detroit had scored in just two innings of the previous three games: the first inning of Game 1 and fourth inning of Game 3 and it again looked like a meager offensive evening when Oakland starter Dan Straily held Detroit hitless for the first four innings.
Trailing 3-0 in the fifth, the Tigers rallied with singles by Prince Fielder and Martinez, setting up Peralta for some dramatics. Peralta, one of 12 players suspended this summer for violating the league’s policy against performance-enhancing drugs, crushed a 90-mile-per-hour fastball into the bullpen to even the game at 3.
Two innings later, Martinez followed with his first homer of the series, and the pressure of what could have been a disappointing series performance dissipated.
“It was a run that we really, really needed,” Martinez said. “We all know Miguel [Cabrera] by himself won’t win every game. We need everybody to step up.
“They have been pitching great to us and we have just been able to get that big hit.”
Fister settled down after a difficult first two innings, and moved into the fifth trailing by just one run, courtesy of Jed Lowrie’s first-inning single.
But Fister allowed a one-out single to the pesky Coco Crisp and, one batter later, Lowrie smashed a cut fastball into the tunnel behind the right-field fence for perhaps the biggest hit of his major league career and a 3-0 A’s lead.
The A’s began this warm evening with the offensive confidence gained in their 6-3 win in Game 3 Monday.
Leading off the game, Crisp spanked a gapper to left. The moment he saw Peralta, playing his fifth career game in left field, fielding the ball, he motored for a standup triple. Peralta not only allowed the ball to roll past him, but his relay was methodical, allowing Crisp plenty of time to reach third base.
Josh Donaldson followed with a shallow fly ball to right. Lowrie who was 0 for- 2 in the series, slapped a single to left for his first RBI.
“This is a good series,” Leyland said. “I mean I’m sure the commissioner is happy it’s going five. We’re going back to Oakland and find out what happens.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.