DETROIT — It’s deja vu all over again.
The Detroit Tigers rallied from an early three-run deficit, erasing the A’s hopes of clinching the American League Division Series on Tuesday with an 8-6 victory that had more drama than the entire group of pictures at the last Oscars ceremony.
In the end, the Tigers went from elimination to survival and from Max Scherzer starting Game 5 to Justin Verlander, because Scherzer pitched two yo-yo innings of relief. Game 1 starter Scherzer picked up the win even after putting five of the 11 men he faced on base.
That leaves Verlander to reprise his role. Twelve months ago, Verlander was the Game 5 starter who eliminated the A’s in the ALDS.
Before Tuesday’s game, the A’s were set to pitch Bartolo Colon in Game 5, but manager Bob Melvin appears to be leaning toward Sonny Gray. The 23-year-old rookie threw eight shutout innings against the Tigers in Oakland on Saturday.
That drama will play out in due time. The A’s, who have fashioned themselves as the ultimate one-game-at-a-time team, now might have only one game left. It’s win or stay home, and to win they’re going to have to beat Verlander, who has allowed one run in his past three postseason starts against them.
“We have much more experience this year than we did last year,” A’s first baseman Brandon Moss said. “We hadn’t played them in a Game 5 before. Now we have. We know what to expect.”
In truth, the A’s expected to close this series out in four games. They took an early 3-0 on an RBI single and a two-run home run by Jed Lowrie, and for four innings, starter Dan Straily allowed just one runner. But with two men on in the fifth, one pitch got away from Straily. Jhonny Peralta hit a tying three-run homer, and from that point the A’s and Tigers were riding waves of emotion that at times favored both teams.
Straily came back to retire six of the next seven men he faced, thinking “I halted their momentum a little bit there,” he said.
And the A’s jumped back in front when Scherzer took over in relief to start the seventh. At first it looked like a terrible gaffe by manager Jim Leyland. Stephen Vogt singled, Eric Sogard moved him up with a bunt, and Coco Crisp singled him home with the third of his four hits. The A’s were back in front, 4-3.
That meant Melvin had both the lead and his bullpen, one of the best in the game, set up the way he wanted. The first man he went to, Sean Doolittle, saw Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez take him over the wall. That’s not to say it was a home run. Right fielder Josh Reddick made a leap for the ball, and he said he might well have caught it had a fan not gotten in the way.
The umpiring crew was split on what the call should be, but after a brief view of the play on videotape, they didn’t see enough evidence to take the tying homer off the board. Moments later, the Tigers went in front when Peralta doubled and Austin Jackson, who struck out his first three times at-bat, “shattered his bat into six or seven pieces,” Doolittle said, for a go-ahead single.
Just like that, the Tigers had their first lead since Game 1.
It seemed like momentum was all Detroit’s. Surely Scherzer wasn’t going to blow up here. But that’s just what happened. Moss walked to start the eighth, Yoenis Cespedes doubled, and Seth Smith was intentionally walked. Now it was the Tigers who had their backs to the wall. The A’s ostensibly could afford a loss. Detroit couldn’t, and the A’s had the bases loaded and none out with Reddick up.
Scherzer, the favorite to win the A.L. Cy Young Award with a 21-3 record, muscled up with a flurry of fastballs, the softest of which came in at 97 mph to Reddick. The outfielder worked the count full, then Scherzer went against the book and threw a changeup that broke inside.
“The changeup looks just like the fastball,” Reddick said. “That’s what makes him so tough. He’d just thrown me seven, all 97, 98. I swung at that (fastball motion). It was a (gutsy) pitch.”
Scherzer struck out Vogt and got Alberto Callaspo to line out, Callaspo in particular getting good swings.
If that didn’t deflate the A’s, what happened next surely did. Ryan Cook got two quick outs in relief but put two men on base, and reliever Brett Anderson came on. In short order, he issued a walk to load the bases, a wild pitch to score a run and a two-run double down the third-base line. Suddenly, a 5-4 game had become an 8-4 game.
Oakland got two runs on Cespedes’ two-out single in the ninth, but Smith, the potential tying run, struck out to end it.
The A’s do get another shot at Verlander, and unlike last year, they have a day off to prepare for him.