DETROIT – So now the Detroit Tigers will go to Oakland and start Justin Verlander in the decisive Game 5 of the American League Division Series – same place, same pitcher, same situation as last year, when Verlander, a former Cy Young winner and MVP, erased the A's with a complete-game shutout. So now the Tigers are alive again.
Because of a blooper that broke up a no-hitter and broke a spell. Because of a home run from a guy fresh off a 50-game suspension for PEDs. Because of a ball that came down toward the top of the fence, bounced off a couple of fans, spilled beer onto the yellow line and sent the umpires to review the video to confirm another home run.
Because of a two-strike, two-out, broken-bat, RBI single from a guy who had struck out 10 times. Because of a likely Cy Young winner who came out of the bullpen on three days' rest and wriggled out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam. Because of a coach who advised an outfielder to shade toward a gap at just the right time. Because of some insurance runs and gutsy decisions by a manager and so much more.
Because it's October.
"It's the playoffs," said Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder. "All the little things become more important."
All the little things added up to a come-from-behind-twice, 8-6 victory for the Tigers on Tuesday, and if there was a sight that summed it up for Detroit, it was Max Scherzer, starter turned reliever turned Harry Houdini, pumping both fists as if he were shaking off shackles underwater in a cage and not just escaping an eighth inning. Scherzer, who led baseball with 21 wins in the regular season, who won Game 1 of this series, got the win again.
"That kind of emotion, the occasion called for it," said Tigers catcher Alex Avila.
The Tigers were done. Dead. They entered the bottom of the fifth trailing, 3-0, but it felt like 30-0 or 300-0 or 3,000-0. They finished second in baseball in runs in the regular season; they hadn't scored in 29 of 31 innings against the A's. They finished first in baseball in hits in the regular season; they didn't have a hit in Game 4. Miguel Cabrera, AL batting champion for the third straight season, was hurt, not hitting like himself, hobbling around the field. Everyone else? Cursed.
And then Fielder slapped the ball the opposite way, and it fell in down the left-field line, breaking up rookie Dan Straily's no-no. And then Victor Martinez hit a sharp single into right. And then Jhonny Peralta, who was finishing up his Biogenesis scandal sentence a couple weeks ago, did what the Tigers put him back in the lineup to do. He enhanced their performance. He gave the Tigers their first home run in eight games and tied it at 3, reviving Comerica Park.
"Some fans throw the ball [onto the field], and, you know, I keep it," Peralta said.
Can you blame him for keeping the home-run souvenir? Would you want to let this go, especially after what happened next?
Manager Jim Leyland said before the game he might use Scherzer in the seventh and eighth innings – maybe, if the Tigers were ahead, if starter Doug Fister was out of gas, maybe. Well, the Tigers were tied entering the seventh. But with runs so precious, with elimination looming, with Verlander available for Game 5 on Thursday night, this was no time to screw around. Out came Scherzer in relief for the first time since the 2011 ALDS. Hey, it was almost like a start – even game, inning beginning, 7 p.m. ET on the dot.
Scherzer promptly gave up a run. The Tigers were behind again. But it didn't matter. Martinez led off the bottom of the seventh with a shot. From the first row of section 104 in right center, the ball came hard and fast toward the fans – seed, golf ball, baseball, BEACH BALL …
"The ball was getting bigger, and I kind of reached over – above the line, of course – and it hit my hands," said Mark Beauchamp, who held out both palms and watched the ball bounce off one of them.
"I thought I did something bad," said John Bendzinski, who spilled his beer as the ball bounced off his arm.
A's right fielder Josh Reddick had climbed the wall and stretched out his glove. "I had no doubt that I was going to be able to catch that ball,"Reddick said. "It was heading right for my glove." He protested immediately. "It's absolutely frustrating a fan can change the outcome of a game," he said.
But right-field umpire Gary Darling immediately signaled home run. Video review confirmed the ball was coming down over the fence, and so did a beer review. There was a puddle on top of the yellow on top of the fence. Tied game, 4-4.
"I didn't want to be the goat," Beauchamp said.
"I felt so much better," Bendzinski said.
Bendzinski had nothing on Austin Jackson. Jackson had struck out three times in a row, and he had been booed one time after a particularly awful swing at a particularly awful pitch in the dirt. He had struck out 10 times in the series, and he was the Tigers' lead-off hitter, while the A's leadoff hitter, Coco Crisp, was getting on base and making something happen every time you looked. Now after Peralta had come through again with a double, Jackson faced two strikes with two out.
"Deep breaths," he told himself. "Relax," he told himself.
He swung. The bat cracked in his hands, and the ball flared toward right … and dropped, scoring pinch runner Andy Dirks. It was 5-4.
"I was just happy it fell," Jackson said. "Looking over in the dugout and seeing how pumped they were for me, it just kind of gave me chills. Just happy to get it done in that moment."
Yet there were still more moments to come. Scherzer allowed a walk and a double. Leyland told him to intentionally walk Seth Smith, who had broken open Game 3 with a home run. Based loaded. Nobody out.
"I hated to load him up," Leyland said. "But Smith has been so hot, and Max is a strikeout guy, so you take your shot."
Scherzer struck out Reddick. Scherzer struck out Stephen Vogt. Scherzer got to 3-2 against pinch hitter Alberto Callaspo, narrowly avoiding disaster when Callaspo slapped one foul just down the left-field line. Bases loaded. Two out. Full count. At the last second, Tigers coach Tom Brookens told Jackson, the center fielder, to shade toward the gap in left center. Callaspo is a lefty. That was his opposite field.
"I think he was hoping he would get a fastball away and stay on that side of the field," Jackson said, "and it worked out perfectly."
Callaspo hit a liner that might have fallen in otherwise. Jackson caught it. Scherzer went crazy. The yard shook.
"To get out of that jam, I mean, that's something I'll never forget," Scherzer said. "That's something I'm not really asked to do, and tonight I was. Obviously, Skip [Leyland] had the confidence in me to stick with me."
Leyland takes a lot of crap in this town for a blue-collar, chain-smoker who tears up talking about the fans. One caller on sports talk radio Tuesday said the worst thing that happened to the Tigers last season was making the playoffs because Leyland wasn't fired – even though, you know, they went to the World Series.
Well, Leyland was the guy who stuck with Fister after he gave up a homer in the fifth, then watched him set down the A's one-two-three in the sixth. Leyland was the one who put Peralta in the lineup, even though he had to play left field, not shortstop. Leyland was the one who trusted Scherzer so much he loaded the bases, wrapped the chains around the cage and threw it in the water, knowing Houdini would find a way. And Leyland was the one who – after the Tigers tacked on three runs in the eighth, then held on after allowing a couple of runs in the ninth – supported closer Joaquin Benoit with a hearty "he's our guy."
Now is not the time to panic. Now is not the time to worry about second-guessing from the fans or the media or even your own mind. Now is not the time to be something you're not. You battle and you grind and you do what you have to do to win – sometimes big things, sometimes lots and lots of little things.
"This is a time of year where it's really interesting," Leyland said before the game, "because everybody comes up with all these different scenarios that maybe you could try. ‘Did you think of this and that?' It's interesting. But we are what we are, and this is the way we play the game. This is who we are. There are no tricks."
So now it's on to Oakland, and Verlander, and Game 5.
Just like last year?
Said Verlander: "It's going to be fun."