The Oakland A's weren't going to let this post-season go by without at least one of their signature back-from-the-dead, walk-off wins. They arguably saved their best walk-off for their 15th of the season. The Detroit Tigers were in control of Game Four of the ALDS up until the bottom of the ninth inning, when the A's home magic once again took over the Coliseum.
Trailing 3-1, the A's jumped quickly on Tigers' closer Jose Valverde, who was 49-for-49 in save opportunities during the 2011 regular season. Josh Reddick, mired in a 1-for-13 slump this post-season, got the A's started with a clean single to right. Josh Donaldson quickly followed with a booming double that missed being a game-tying homerun by mere feet. Suddenly the A's, who had only three base-runners get past second base during the first eight innings (and one was erased immediately), had the tying runs in scoring position with no-outs.
The sellout Coliseum crowd was loud all night, but the crowd noise reached another level in the ninth inning. Seth Smith, who was 0-for-2 with two strike-outs and a walk going into the ninth inning, lined a double to right-center on a 1-1 pitch and the A's and Tigers were suddenly tied for the first time since the game was 0-0 in the top of the third inning.
Asked after the game if he was thinking two bases as soon as he connected on the game-tying hit, Smith quipped that he was just happy he had hit it.
"I'm used to playing at Coors Field," said Smith, who was acquired by the A's from Colorado this past off-season. "Every ball you hit there you think two bases."
For a time, it looked as if the A's were going to have to settle for merely tying the game in the ninth. A's manager Bob Melvin sent George Kottaras to the plate after Smith's double, replacing Derek Norris. Many expected Kottaras to bunt Smith over to third, but he was given the green-light to swing and he popped out in foul territory. Cliff Pennington followed with a strike-out and the A's were faced with the possibility of having to go extra-innings against Detroit and face the middle of the Tigers' line-up once again.
Coco Crisp wanted nothing to do with extras, however. The A's centerfielder, who has had a flair for the dramatic all season, connected on the first pitch he saw and lined a one-hopper to right field. Detroit right-fielder Avisail Garcia, who had thrown out Crisp trying to score from second base in Game Two of the series, charged the ball and was unable to field it cleanly, allowing Smith to score without a throw and a wild A's walkoff celebration to begin.
"It's amazing. The guys in front of me obviously did a fantastic job of getting on base," Crisp said. "This club, we've been battling the whole year, giving 100 percent, and these walk offs have been our MO this year."
The walkoff hit was Crisp's third of the season. Melvin felt confident with Crisp at the plate in that situation, even with two-outs.
"He always puts a great at bat. We don't need a homer right there, all we need is a hit," Melvin said.
"I don't think there's anybody we feel better about. There's certainly guys we feel good about, but I don't think there's anybody we feel better about in that situation than Coco."
Before the A's ninth inning comeback, the story of the game was Tigers' starter Max Scherzer. The hard-throwing right-hander gave the Oakland faithful little to cheer about through his first five innings of work. He came into the series as a bit of a question-mark thanks to a balky right shoulder and a sprained ankle that limited him to seven innings over his last two starts of the regular season.
Scherzer looked like a healthy 16-game winner on Wednesday night, however, as he carved up the A's offense for eight strike-outs through those first five innings. He kept his pitch count relatively low early, as well, before the A's finally started to get to him in the fifth and sixth innings.
Oakland's best scoring opportunity against Scherzer came in the sixth inning. Trailing 2-0, Oakland got a break to start the sixth when Crisp's hard groundball was booted by first-baseman Prince Fielder. It was a two-base error, giving Oakland their first runner in scoring position all night. Crisp would advance to third on a wild pitch with Stephen Drew at the plate. Drew then hit a hard drive into the gap in right-center. Crisp trotted home and the A's briefly looked to be on the verge of a big rally. However, Drew inexplicably tried to stretch the sure double into a triple and he was thrown out at third for the first out of the inning.
Although the replays seemed to indicate A's third base coach Mike Gallego sent Drew to third, Melvin indicated that it was Drew's decision to go for the triple.
"He thought he could make it. Stephen can be a cautious baserunner, so he really felt like where the ball was when he turned around and looked, he felt like he could get it," Melvin said. "And he knows more than anybody, with nobody out that you have to be able to make it. He just thought he could make it. It wasn't Gallego sending him, he just ran."
The Tigers' bullpen would take over for Scherzer after the Drew double and they kept the A's off the scoreboard until the fateful ninth inning. Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Al Albuquerque and Joaquin Benoit combined to toss 2.2 scoreless innings to bridge the gap between Scherzer and Valverde. The A's only real scoring opportunity against that trio came with two-outs in the eighth when Drew singled and Yoenis Cespdes walked versus Benoit. The right-hander struck-out Brandon Moss on a change-up to end the threat, the A's 11th strike-out on the night.
Detroit once again didn't muster a lot of offense against the A's starting pitching. A's starter A.J. Griffin battled for five innings without his best stuff, but still kept the Tigers close. He allowed an RBI single by Austin Jackson in the third and a long Prince Fielder solo homerun in the fourth, but was otherwise able to dance around seven baserunners over five-plus innings. He didn't walk any batters but struck-out only one.
The Tigers would add what appeared to be a big third run in the eighth inning when they got to A's reliever Sean Doolittle for three hits and a run. Ryan Cook took over for Doolittle with two-outs in the eighth and he retired all four batters he faced. Cook earned the win, a bit of redemption for him after he gave-up the lead late for the A's in Game Two of the series.
Despite entering the ninth inning with 11 strike-outs and only four hits to their name, the A's were confident that they could get to Valverde and extended their season at least one more day.
"We've done it too many times down this road to feel like we weren't going to win," Melvin said.
"And then we get the first guy on and we feel like here we go again. That's a contagious feeling in our dugout. And Donaldson gets the double and the momentum and the crowd got into it again. We just don't feel like it's going to end for us."
NOTES: It doesn't get any easier for the A's in Game Five. Oakland will have to face the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young award winner, Justin Verlander, who earned the win against the A's in Game One of the series and had an 0.69 ERA versus Oakland in two starts during the regular season…The A's are asking fans to arrive for the 6:30pm start time early on Thursday and to take BART, as the A's will be sharing the parking lot with the Golden State Warriors, who will be playing an exhibition game at the Arena next door…James Simmons had a solid 2012 Arizona Fall League debut on Wednesday, tossing a scoreless inning of relief. Fellow A's prospect Gary Daley, Jr. also pitched well, but was stuck with a blown save after allowing two runs (one earned) in two innings pitched. He struck-out four and walked none.