DETROIT – Grant Balfour fired a fastball, Victor Martinez fouled it off, and then they had a foul-off. Balfour walked down the mound to get a ball. Martinez glared back as he stuck his bat under his arm and adjusted his gloves. Balfour shouted an expletive, Martinez shouted back, and Balfour shouted again – all F-bombs and B-words. Comerica Park roared as the two men moved toward each other and the umpire tried to make peace and the benches emptied and it looked like the Oakland A's and Detroit Tigers were about to snowball into a brawl.
"He gave me the death stare, man," Balfour said. "He had the eyes locked on me like he wanted to come out. So I said, ‘Hey, man, you want to stare me down like that and you got a problem, then come out.' I don't really care. So he came out, and whatever."
Whatever is right. This is baseball, not hockey. The guys postured; they didn't punch. The incident had little impact on Game 3 of this American League Division Series, and it almost certainly will have little impact on Game 4. But boy, with Oakland's fiery, profane closer taking no crap in the bottom of the ninth of a 6-3 victory Monday, with Detroit's elite, professional hitters looking frustrated and now facing a 2-1 series deficit and elimination Tuesday, it sure fit, didn't it?
"This is a battle," Martinez said. "I'm not a rookie to be intimidated."
[Related: A's push Tigers to brink in heated Game 3]
Intimidated? The Tigers? Shouldn't the A's be intimidated? The A's lost to the Tigers in the American League Championship Series in 2006. They lost to them in the ALDS last year. On Opening Day, they had the 27th-highest payroll in baseball; the Tigers had the fifth-highest. This is $65 million vs. $150 million, low budget vs. big budget, moneyball vs. moneybags, Billy Beane's little ol' A's against Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and all his toys – Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder …
Except these are the scrappy A's, the underdog A's, the same A's who came into Detroit and won three of four in August, and right now, these are the limping, punchless Tigers. Cabrera, winner of the Triple Crown and AL MVP last year, AL batting champion this year, has a bad groin/hip. Torii Hunter has a sore shoulder. They scored three runs in the first inning of Game 1, but that was it in a 3-2 victory. They failed to score in Game 2, suffering a bottom-of-the-ninth 1-0 loss. How putrid was the offense?
"You kind of smell what you need to do," manager Jim Leyland said.
Leyland put Jhonny Peralta in left field, even though he's a shortstop, even though he had played in only the final series of the regular season after serving a 50-game suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. The A's took a 1-0 lead in the third, when Cabrera couldn't get behind a grounder, letting it glance off the heel of his hand and allowing Coco Crisp to score. They took a 2-0 lead in the fourth when Josh Reddick homered, then made it 3-0 later in the inning when Crisp hit a fly to shallow left. Stephen Vogt, a catcher, tagged up at third. Peralta couldn't throw him out.
"Maybe caught them off-guard a little bit," Vogt said.
Maybe. The fans groaned as Vogt slid and the ball trickled by. They perked up in the bottom of the inning when the Tigers snapped their 20-inning scoreless drought. Martinez drove in a run with a double. Peralta drove in two with a single. Tied game, 3-3. But the A's responded by doubling them up in the top of the fifth. Anibal Sanchez, who led the AL in ERA this season, who hadn't given up more than one home run in a game in more than a year, gave up his second and third of this one.
Brandon Moss, who has struck out nine times in 10 other at-bats in this series, stayed back on a changeup and hit a solo shot. "In all honesty," he said, "I'm trying to get a mistake, anything." After Yoenis Cespedes singled, Seth Smith hit a two-run homer to end the scoring. "Fastball," Smith said, "right there."
"The momentum shifted, the crowd got into it and all of a sudden it's a tie game, and Brandon Moss hit a home run," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "That's a huge swing in momentum for us. At the time, it felt like it was more than just a solo home run, so big a swing for us, and then we continued to swing the bat well after that."
Twice more, the Tigers had the heart of their order up. They generated nothing. After Fielder lined out to end the eighth, the fans streamed for the exits. There were empty seats in the bottom of the ninth of a playoff game, so some folks were already on the freeway for Balfour and Martinez's little tiff.
"We just got beat," Hunter said. "I don't think we're pressing. I think we've got to go out with a little more urgency."
Huh? It doesn't make sense. But sports doesn't always make sense, especially in a short series, and now look: If the Tigers win Tuesday they head to Oakland for Game 5 on Thursday night with ace Max Scherzer on the mound. They won Game 5 last year in Oakland with Verlander on the mound. But lose again and they're done, and all that money and all that talent that has come so close – a World Series in 2006, an ALCS in 2011, a World Series in 2012 – will fall short again.
Funny. After the Balfour-Martinez thing fizzled out, after the others went back to the benches and bullpens, Martinez lined out to right. As he jogged back across the infield, he was escorted by Daric Barton, the first baseman. Balfour turned his back, and home-plate umpire Gary Darling made sure there was no trouble.
"It's all good," Balfour said. "I'm cool with it. I like a little fire, and obviously he does, too. Makes for a little fun, right?"
Well, that depends. The Tigers went down without any more drama. On the whiteboard in their clubhouse afterward was this trite, old truth: "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog."