For eight innings on Thursday afternoon, the fourth and final game of the Detroit Tigers/Oakland Athletics series looked like a bad bit of deja vu. Oakland had jumped on Max Scherzer early as the AL Cy Young candidate joined the list of Tigers starters unable to slow down a suddenly unstoppable Oakland offense. The Tigers lineup had plenty of hits but little to show for it.
Everything changed, however, in a dramatic ninth inning as Torii Hunter’s three-run homer off Grant Balfour capped a four-run ninth and the Tigers avoided a four game sweep in a 7-6 walkoff victory.
Scherzer was looking to go to 20-1 but not even he could keep the Oakland bats from doing damage. He, like three of his colleagues, found himself down 2-0 in the first inning after Coco Crisp led off with a double (of course) and Jed Lowrie followed with a two-run homer. Scherzer got it together until the fourth inning, when a double and a single set up two sacrifice flies to make it 4-0. The Tigers put two on with nobody out in the fourth inning, but only got a sac fly. That looked to be particularly useless when Brandon Moss, who has cemented his place as a reviled figure among Tiger fans, hit yet another two-run homer off Scherzer to make it 6-1. The game looked over and Scherzer looked destined to 19-2. To make matters worse, Miguel Cabrera ended the bottom of the fifth with a clumsy slide into second that saw him get up and walk off the field limping. Cabrera is day-to-day, according to the team.
The Tigers had been putting guys on against Bartolo Colon, but it was mostly singles. Colon went five innings in his first start off the disabled list, and the Athletics turned to their bullpen in the sixth – a move that certainly made the Tigers happy. Prince Fielder, the first batter to see reliever Jerry Blevins, hit a long home run to right center field to make it 6-2. Two singles later, the Tigers were threatening again, and with two outs Ramon Santiago bounced one through the hole between first and second to drive in a key third run to make the score 6-3.
While the Tigers were scoring, their bullpen – which had failed to stop the bleeding all series – was doing some heavy lifting. Scherzer only went five, which meant the newly-recalled Luke Putkonen was called into duty. Putkonen gave the Tigers two valuable innings, giving up two hits and striking out four. Jose Veras pitched a perfect eighth, and Joaquin Benoit pitched around two singles to complete a scoreless ninth.
The Tigers had closed the gap and their bullpen had done good work, but things still looked bleak at the start of the ninth down three runs and facing A’s closer Grant Balfour, whose ERA coming in was under 2. It was clear from the outset, however, that Balfour was not quite right on this particular day. He started the inning with six straight balls, including the vital leadoff walk to Austin Jackson. Even with Balfour’s control problems, he got Andy Dirks to pop out and Alex Avila went down on a called third strike. Balfour’s control would bite him again, however, as he walked Fielder on four pitches. He got ahead of Victor Martinez 0-2 but couldn’t retire him with a series of poorly-located breaking balls that Martinez fouled off. Victor then muscled a 1-2 fastball into center field to bring Jackson in from third and close the gap to 6-4. The game then fell to Torii Hunter, who had pinch-hit for Don Kelly during a seventh inning threat and had grounded out the first pitch. Hunter got the count to 1-1 this time when Balfour left a slide up, and Hunter turned on it, knocking it over the left field fence – barely – for a walkoff three-run homer. The sweep was averted.
While the Tigers still lost the series in ugly fashion, a dramatic win does bandage the wounds at least slightly. It also means the Tigers can go into their final series with Cleveland on a high note, and they could possibly still be as much as six games ahead of the Tribe if Atlanta defeat them tonight.