DETROIT — In moments, the Oakland Athletics went from “sweep” to “bleep” on Thursday.
Several times just one pitch away from what would have been a landmark four-game sweep of Detroit in Comerica Park, the Athletics saw closer Grant Balfour stumble in the ninth inning, giving up four runs, including a walk-off three-run homer by Torii Hunter in a 7-6 loss to the Tigers.
To that point, the game was in Oakland’s pocket. The Athletics, who had won the first three games by a combined 28-13 score, got a two-run Jed Lowrie homer in the first inning and a two-run Brandon Moss homer in the fifth to forge a 6-1 lead.
It was a sign that the offense was back, and just in time for a final-month push toward the American League West title. Detroit came in with a 3.49 ERA that was the best in the American League, but by scoring 34 runs (31 of them earned) in the fourth games, the Athletics pushed that number to 3.63.
The bullpen has been an inconsistent thorn in the Athletics’ side in August, and in the sixth, Jerry Blevins gave up a home run to Prince Fielder and was charged with a second run after being relieved by Dan Otero, who allowed a two-out RBI single. But Otero and Sean Doolittle then quieted the Tigers down and turned the ball over to Balfour, the most consistent man in the bullpen.
He issued a leadoff walk, then got two outs. He’d never get the third out.
Balfour walked Fielder and battled Victor Martinez gamely before surrendering an RBI single. Hunter stepped in and simply slaughtered a Balfour slider for his 16th homer as the Tigers scored their biggest comeback win of the season.
In the clubhouse after the game, Balfour was beside himself. The “bleeps” were all over the place as the realization set in that the Athletics had lost half a game in the standings to first-place Texas. Oakland is three games out of first.
“I had nothing today,” Balfour said. “I knew it warming up in the bullpen. And this is not a good lineup (to face) when you’ve got nothing. They keep coming at you.”
Catcher Stephen Vogt admitted that Balfour was far from being at his best. At the same time, he called Martinez’s at-bat the best at-bat of the day because Balfour made some tough pitches, and Martinez was able to foul those off before eventually getting just enough of a slider to dump it into center field’s no man’s land for an RBI that extended the inning.
“Victor fought off the perfect pitch (to get that hit),” Vogt said. “He got just enough of it to get it to fall in.”
It was more of the same with Hunter. The veteran outfielder fouled a pitch off, then took a slider for a ball. Balfour came back with another slider.
“It was a slider away,” Vogt said, “but he didn’t get it down as much as he wanted.”
It was right where Hunter wanted it to salvage one game of the series for Detroit, which was looking dazed and confused with all the offense the Athletics threw at it in these four games.
Oakland, which has consistently had trouble batting with runners in scoring position, got both homers with men in scoring position and added two sacrifice flies in the fourth inning, one each from Daric Barton and Eric Sogard in building up the lead.
“It was a good offensive series for us,” manager Bob Melvin said, “especially considering the starting pitching we were facing. The guy today (Max Scherzer) might be the best starter in the game. And we were able to get him out of there earlier than he’s been out in a while.”
You have to go all the way back to April 24 for a game in which Scherzer, still 19-1, didn’t pitch at least six innings. He was on the hook for the loss, but the Tigers average 7.3 runs per game for him. They got their seven again—it just took all of 3 hours, 9 minutes.
Bartolo Colon, coming off the disabled list (left groin) to make his first start since Aug. 13, was in position for his 15th win. He threw five innings, allowed one run and threw 73 pitches.
“I felt that my velocity was up,” Colon said through interpreter Ariel Prieto. Colon was stronger than in the two games before he went on the disabled list, and that’s encouraging for the Athletics.
Moss hit four home runs in the last three games of the series and has a team-best (and career high) 25 homers.