Tigers' role players step up

DETROIT -- For all the eye-opening things that happened at Comerica Park on Sunday -- a pitcher kissing a baseball in the middle of a play, a pair of runs scoring on wild pitches, seven lead changes in nine innings -- there was one moment in particular that stood out.

It happened three hours and 28 minutes after the first pitch, when this emotionally exhausting back-and-forth affair had finally come to an end. After belting the game-winning sacrifice fly to right field, giving his team a 2-0 lead in this best-of-five series, Detroit's Don Kelly -- the same Don Kelly who had been designated for assignment earlier this season -- celebrated by lifting teammate Prince Fielder up off the ground. Yes, the 190-pound Kelly elevated the 275-pound Fielder, much to the amazement of anyone paying attention.

"He got me up. My feet were dangling," Fielder said. "When he's fired up, he's pretty strong."

For more than a year now, the Tigers have had a name for this fired-up behavior. They call it "Donz." It started at one point last year, when pitcher Rick Porcello was fishing and passed a boat with the name "Donz" on the back. The name stuck.

"It was a quiet little thing amongst the team," catcher Gerald Laird said. "Donz with a Z."

Laird described it as an alter-ego of sorts, a look that Kelly gets in his eyes when something good is about to happen. When that good thing happens, it's often followed by an overwhelming rush of adrenaline and emotion. On Sunday afternoon, as Laird sat in the Tigers clubhouse in the ninth inning icing one of his fingers, he saw the look in Kelly's eyes. A's closer Grant Balfour hadn't given up a run in his previous 10 appearances. But Laird didn't care.

"I just thought, 'C'mon Balfour. Leave something over the middle of the plate and Donz with a Z is going to take care of it,'" Laird said.

That's exactly what happened. Kelly got a fastball from Balfour, he poked a sacrifice fly to right field and the Tigers won 5-4. It was Kelly's first RBI since June 7, and his first go-ahead RBI all season. Afterward, the Tigers knew Donz would erupt. Leave it to Fielder to take one for the team.

"I wasn't surprised," Fielder said. "I was expecting something."

What he got was a quick trip off the ground. Afterward, Kelly couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. He laughed when one reporter asked him how his back was feeling.

"I'm fine," he said. "Everybody acts so surprised. That's why you play the game. To be in a moment like that."

The moment came only because the Tigers had an answer for every single thing Oakland threw at them on Sunday. In a game that the A's pretty much had to win -- now they must roll off three straight back at the Oakland Coliseum to avoid elimination -- the Tigers trailed three different times. Each time, they had an answer. In fact, in all four innings the A's have scored in this series, the Tigers have responded with a run in the bottom half of that inning.

"When you come back and score, the momentum switches right back to your dugout," Laird said. "To come back and score like that the following inning, it says a lot about our team. We're fighters."

They're also lucky. The Tigers were helped by an error by Coco Crisp on a fly ball by Miguel Cabrera that allowed two runs to score in the seventh. And a wild pitch that allowed Kelly to score the game-tying run in the eighth. Then there was the rocket grounder that relief pitcher Al Alburquerque snagged earlier that inning to leave a pair of Oakland runners stranded. Before tossing to first base for the out, Alburquerque kissed the baseball, much to the dismay of the A's.

"I definitely don't appreciate that," Oakland's Josh Reddick told reporters after the game. "I think it's immature."

"It's just something that happened," Alburquerque said, insisting he got caught up in the emotion of the moment and meant no disrespect.

If Detroit is to go on and compete for its first World Series title since 1984, it will need its role players to continue what happened here on Sunday. The knock on Detroit is that their talent is top-heavy with Fielder, Triple Crown winner Cabrera and a starting staff anchored by Cy Young favorite Justin Verlander. It's supposedly a thin bench. A shaky bullpen. But Sunday it was all enough.

It was guys like Kelly, who was designed for assignment on Aug. 3, scoring the game-tying run in the eighth and hitting the game-winning sacrifice fly an inning later. It was rookie Avisail Garcia gunning down Crisp at home plate on a third-inning single by Yoenis Cespedes. It was utility man Danny Worth, who has bounced back and forth between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo all year, making a stellar defensive stab at shortstop in the ninth inning to force Cliff Pennington at second and keep the game tied at 4-4.

Without any of these moments, the Tigers don't win. Kelly never gets his chance.

"We got contributions from everybody," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "And that's a good thing."

It was Oakland which came into this series as the tightly knit team that refused to quit and had a different hero every night. The A's are young, hungry and seemingly possessed that unexplainable, never-give-up intangible that the St. Louis Cardinals used to help propel them to the 2011 World Series title. And yet for all the mettle the A's showed here on Sunday, be it Cespedes stealing second and third in the eighth inning before scoring on a wild pitch, or Reddick hitting the go-ahead home run that same inning after going 0-for-6 with six strikeouts in the series, it is the Tigers who will head west with a commanding lead in the series. Thanks to guys like the Donz.

"This tested our team today," Laird said. "We got to see a little bit of what we're made of. And I like how we responded. I like that we came out on top."