It looked like the Oakland A's were going to complete one of the most impressive sweeps of the season, going into Detroit and beating the Tigers in four games started by Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer by scores of 8-6, 6-3, 14-4 and 6-3. On Thursday, they knocked out Scherzer after five innings -- as they also did with Sanchez, Verlander and Fister -- appearing to hand him just his second loss of the season.
A's closer Grant Balfour had blown just one save opportunity all season and entered the ninth with that 6-3 lead. He was facing the top of the Tigers' lineup, but Miguel Cabrera had been removed two innings earlier after discomfort in his abdominal region. In other words, Jim Leyland had decided he'd weaken his chances of winning by removing Cabrera, probably to ensure that he'd be ready for Friday's division showdown with Cleveland.
Entering Thursday, teams were 1,654-92 when leading after eight innings, a winning percentage of 94.7 percent. Teams had scored four or more runs in the ninth just 43 times all season -- 1.4 percent of all half innings. While FanGraphs pegged the Tigers' Win Expectancy at 4.1 percent at the start of the inning, it seems like it would actually be a little lower than that, especially with a closer as solid as Balfour on the mound and no Cabrera in the lineup.
Austin Jackson walked on four pitches -- all outside. But Andy Dirks popped out to shortstop and Alex Avila, hitting in Cabrera's spot, struck out (Win Expectancy down to 1.5 percent). Prince Fielder walked on four pitches -- all up in the zone, three inside off the plate and one high and outside. Considering Balfour had also fallen behind Dirks and Avila, it was pretty clear by now he had no command, particularly with the fastball.
He did get ahead of Victor Martinez with a slider, and a foul ball on another slider made it 0-2. Before Thursday, when Balfour got to 0-2 on a hitter, batters were hitting .162 off him, with 22 strikeouts in 39 plate appearances. Martinez was hitting .161 after falling behind 0-2. The next pitch was a curveball that didn't break and ended up high and outside. Balfour is a high-energy, hyperactive pitcher on the mound, and he was up to 21 pitches now, tugging at his jersey, his cap and the two chains around his neck between. The TV camera flashed to A's manager Bob Melvin in the dugout. He turned to somebody and smiled.
Martinez is one of the tougher hitters to punch out, however, and he then fouled off another curve and then a fastball into the third-base stands. The sixth pitch was a fastball, high and inside -- a pretty good pitch actually -- but Martinez fisted it into shallow center for a bloop single. It was his 11th hit of the series and it scored a run, bringing the winning run to the plate in Torii Hunter. Martinez didn't have a line-drive single, but rather a tough, grind-it-out base hit by a hitter who knows how to grind out at-bats against good pitchers.
The A's had a visit to the mound. Pitching coach Curt Young had a long discussion with Balfour and catcher Stephen Vogt. The camera panned to Melvin. He was not smiling.
Balfour opened with a slider off the plate that Hunter lunged at and fouled off. The 0-1 pitch was a fastball up -- perhaps leaving Hunter to guess slider on the next pitch, considering Balfour's lack of fastball command. The next pitch was a slider on the outside corner, but it was letter high and Hunter crushed it to left-center for the dramatic walk-off home run. Balfour exited to a string of expletives as Hunter was mobbed at home plate by the happy Tigers, who, trailing 6-1 earlier in the game, had pulled off their biggest comeback win of the season.
While obviously an exciting win for the Tigers, it was probably more of a huge defeat for the A's. Detroit has a comfortable six-game lead over the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, pending the Indians' result Thursday night against the Braves. The A's are chasing the Texas Rangers in the AL West, now down three games instead of two.
Baseball players are trained to forget about defeats. Closers, of course, have to have short memories, and I'm sure Balfour will be fine in his next outing. But this one hurts. The A's have to face David Price on Friday, but my guess is this loss will linger longer than most.
As for the Tigers, it's proof that this lineup is deeper than just Cabrera and a nice lift heading into the Cleveland series.
Scherzer is still 19-1. He just knows how to win and, apparently, how to avoid losses.