DETROIT -- They led 3-0 with 15 outs left, and 4-3 with nine outs left, and ... well, by now the Oakland A's can do this dance with their eyes closed. This is a franchise of regular-season magic and October heartache. The A's make you believe in the impossible, then hate yourself for believing in it.
The names change, the salaries stay the same, and the last scene is always filled with blood. This riveting American League Division Series between the A's and Detroit Tigers is tied 2-2, so the A's are obviously not toast. But forgive Oakland fans if they think they smell something burning.
After one of the more painful losses in their painful recent postseason history, the A's are going home for Game 5. Unfortunately, Justin Verlander will meet them there. But before we get to that frightening proposition, let's perform an autopsy on the epic Game 4.
This will take a few paragraphs, A's fans. And the pain will be excruciating.
The A's lost 8-6, but the story of this game was all the ways that Oakland could have won. Four and a half innings into it, the A's had three runs and the Tigers had no hits. The Tigers were not just losing. They looked lost.
What happened? You can start with a strong candidate for player of the game, who happened to be sitting in the right-field seats. A Tigers fan caught a Victor Martinez home run before Josh Reddick could. Reddick said afterward that he was "100 percent" sure he would have caught the ball when it happened, and just as sure when he watched the replay.
If the fan had been more passive, it probably would have been an out. A ruling of fan interference could have turned it into a double. Umpires reviewed it and said it was over the yellow line, which was the correct call, but still a brutal one.
"It is absolutely frustrating that a fan can change the outcome of a game," Reddick said.
Reddick had no idea that fate was in the process of getting drunk and smacking him upside the head repeatedly. Later in that inning, Tigers centerfielder Austin Jackson came up with two runners on base, which should not have worried anybody except the Tigers. Jackson has been on an extraordinary run of strikeouts.
This time, Jackson hit the ball. Sort of. A's reliever Sean Doolittle broke Jackson's bat. The ball fluttered out to right, where it landed two feet in front of Reddick. The Tigers had their first lead in 25 innings.
And then there was the top of the eighth inning, which felt like a Broadway musical about this entire era of A's postseason baseball. With runners on second and third, nobody out, and the Tigers clinging to a 5-4 lead, Detroit manager Jim Leyland decided to walk Seth Smith intentionally to load the bases. That is always an incredibly risky move -- it means that if anything goes wrong, the game is tied, and it puts enormous pressure on the pitcher to throw strikes. But at that point, a manager is choosing from a variety of bad options, anyway.
Max Scherzer was already out of his element, pitching on three days rest and out of the bullpen. Leyland said afterward that he called for the walk with the hope that Scherzer would get two strikeouts in a row. Scherzer threw six straight fastballs at Reddick. One called strike, three balls, two fouls.
Reddick said afterward that had no choice: He had to be ready for another fastball. And Scherzer, who studies numbers and tendencies as much as any pitcher in baseball, knew Reddick had no choice. And so he decided to throw what Tigers catcher Alex Avila called "a ballsy" pitch: a changeup. It was off the plate. Avila said "nine out of 10" hitters would swing at it, but how many pitchers would risk the game-tying walk?
Reddick swung at ball four and missed.
"Looking back, I wish I would have taken it," he said. One out.
The next batter, Stephen Vogt, was overmatched; he said later that, "As soon as (Scherzer) got in that bases-loaded, no-out situation, it seemed like he just got better." Two outs.
Alberto Callaspo hit a line drive, but Jackson caught it. Three outs.
The Tigers added three runs in the bottom of the eighth, then gave up two more in the top of the ninth, just to be evil. The game ended with Seth Smith -- the guy Leyland intentionally walked to load the bases -- striking out.
So now what? Well, Doolittle said the A's had to "leave this game in Detroit." He stroked his beard after his two-out, two-run outing and said, "I'm going to sleep tonight ... I went down with my best stuff." Reddick said: "We can't dwell on it tomorrow and Thursday. If we do that, it's just going to expand in our minds." He promised to listen to country music on the flight home and treat this the same as a 10-0 loss.
But the A's have two obstacles. One is history. The franchise has lost eight of its last nine postseason series, going back to when the Cincinnati Reds pulled off a stunning sweep in the 1990 World Series. For all of Oakland's regular-season success under Billy Beane, the A's have only made it past the first round of the expanded playoffs once -- in 2006, when they got swept by the Tigers in the ALCS.
The A's are about to be hit with another wave of stories about whether Beane's (expletive) doesn't work in the playoffs, as he famously once said. It can work, of course. It should have worked by now. But the fact is, it hasn't.
The other problem is named Justin Verlander, who will pitch Game 5 because Leyland wisely burned Scherzer in Game 4. Verlander can scare any team, but he should really spook the A's. In three postseason games against Oakland over the last two seasons, Verlander has pitched 23 innings, struck out 33 and allowed one earned run. He has pitched 22 consecutive scoreless postseason innings against Oakland.
Last year, Oakland went home for Game 5 of the ALDS, and Verlander made sure they stayed there with a masterful complete-game, 11-strikeout performance.
A's outfielder Coco Crisp sat at his locker Tuesday evening and said, "Hopefully, our patience will outlast his skill set." That is what happened in Game 2 of this series, when the A's failed to score off Verlander but ran up his pitch count enough to force the Tigers to go to their bullpen in the eighth inning.
Verlander at his best is arguably the game's best strikeout starter, and the A's are prone to striking out. Verlander's struggles usually come when he fails to control his fastball. That was the big reason for his struggles this year, more than the much-discussed drop in velocity. Verlander could still throw heat when he needed it, and his velocity didn't drop off that much. Location was the problem. He battled his mechanics all season; it is testament to his talent and his will that he still had a good year by most standards.
"I set a date for myself. I need to be ready, at all costs, for the postseason," Verlander said.
He was ready. And as the A's promised to leave Game 4 behind, the Tigers reveled in it down the hall. Miguel Cabrera had a child on his lap. Music pounded from the clubhouse speakers. Leyland strolled out of his office wearing no shirt and tight workout pants, and he was singing. The A's know this song. It has been stuck in their heads for too many years.