A's drop the ball in frustrating loss

The last few innings won’t exactly go down as textbook October baseball, but the Detroit Tigers will happily take the 5-4 walk-off win over the A’s, the 2-0 series lead and the plane ride to Oakland knowing they need to win only one of three games.

It was a game in which some of Detroit’s little guys stepped up: Omar Infante had two key hits, Don Kelly delivered the winning sacrifice fly and backup shortstop Danny Worth made a nice play in the ninth.

In the end, the A’s have nobody to blame but themselves. Tommy Milone, after looking like he wouldn’t last past the third inning early on, settled down and allowed just one run over six innings. When the A’s took a 2-1 lead in the seventh off Doug Fister, Bob Melvin had the game exactly where he wanted: The chance to hand the ball to his final three relievers with a lead.

Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour had been dominant down the stretch for the A’s when they surged to win the division title. Check out their numbers:

Doolittle since Sept. 7: 15 IP, 8 H, 3 BB, 13 SO, 1.80 ERA, .154 AVG

Cook since Sept. 7: 15 IP, 8 H, 1 BB, 16 SO, 0.00 ERA, .154 AVG

Balfour since Sept. 14: 11 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 14 SO, 0.00 ERA, .086 AVG

It’s worth noting that Melvin pushed all three hard in the final week -- Cook and Balfour each appeared in the final five games and Doolittle the final four. None had appeared in more than three consecutive games all season prior to that. The A’s had three days off since clinching and all three had excellent velocity, but you do wonder how much they have left in the tanks.

The key play came with Doolittle pitching in the seventh. After Austin Jackson and Infante singled, Miguel Cabrera hit a fly ball to somewhat shallow center field. Coco Crisp, playing in Saginaw, got a late jump and then tried to Willie Mays it, but dropped it, and two runs scored on the error. It wasn’t that difficult of a play, even from where Crisp started. You can’t make errors like that and win postseason games.

But the A’s actually took the lead in the eighth when Yoenis Cespedes created a run all by himself, singling, stealing second and third and scoring on a wild pitch. When Josh Reddick then lofted a 3-2 changeup from Joaquin Benoit over the right-field fence to make it 4-3 (batters had previously hit .174 off Benoit’s changeup, with 47 strikeouts and three walks), the A’s once again looked good.

But in the bottom half, Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta singled off Cook and Andy Dirks laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt. Pinch-hitter Quintin Berry struck out, but Cook then threw a pitch in the dirt, catcher George Kottaras made an unsuccessful backhand stab and pinch-runner Kelly scored the tying run.

In the ninth, Al Alburquerque relieved Phil Coke with two runners on and got Cespedes on a bouncer back to the mound to end the threat. Balfour, the hyper Australian, came on in the bottom of the ninth having retired the previous 26 batters he faced. But Infante singled to right with one out, Cabrera dumped a flare into center to send Infante to third, and after Prince Fielder was intentionally walked, Kelly lofted an 0-1 pitch to right, easily scoring the winner.

Despite the back-and-forth nature of the game, there weren’t too many managerial moves to question. I’m not a fan of loading the bases since it forces the pitcher to throw strikes, but you can’t argue with putting on a hitter such as Fielder to pitch to Kelly. Fielder did ground into 17 double plays, but Balfour is a fly-ball pitcher and Kelly was hitting .186 (although his strikeout rate of 17 percent isn’t terrible). All things considered, you’re much more likely to get a strikeout there than a double play with Fielder.

I did think Melvin missed a chance to get power-hitting Chris Carter in the game when Leyland brought in Coke to start the ninth to face Kottaras. Melvin instead pinch-hit his other catcher, Derek Norris, who struck out.

Melvin also chose not to sacrifice bunt with Stephen Drew in the third inning after the first two batters reached. I didn’t have a problem with that. Even though the score was 0-0 at the time, Milone had been shaky, escaping a bases-loaded jam in the second, so Melvin was correct in thinking he should go for a big inning instead of one run. Drew struck out and the A’s scored just one run, as the Tigers ended the threat when rookie Avisail Garcia gunned down Crisp at home plate with a perfect throw from right field.

So it's a huge win for the Tigers and a frustrating loss for the A’s. The one clear advantage Oakland had going into the series was the bullpen, and now the 'pen has a mark on the wrong side of the ledger. The A’s do head home, where they’ve won eight of nine, but even if they pull out the next two games, you know who is staring down at them for a possible Game 5: Justin Verlander.