OAKLAND -- The Tigers stood three outs away from a return to the American League Championship Series. All the ups and downs of the season, all the times they seemed out of it, were three outs away from character building.
Now, they'll need nine more innings, many of them from Justin Verlander, before a raucous A's crowd to get there. As tough as these last two nights have been for them, they probably haven't seen anything yet.
"Yeah, well, it's baseball," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after a three-run A's rally off Jose Valverde in the ninth inning sent the Tigers to a 4-3 loss Wednesday night. "I mean, that's why this is the greatest game of all. It looked like we were going to get it. We didn't do it. We didn't quite get the 27 outs, that's part of the game."
As a result, their AL Division Series is headed to a Game 5 on Thursday night. It's the situation they coveted coming into the series, a winner-take-all matchup with the reigning American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner on the mound. The setup, however, is nothing like what they could have anticipated.
"We're in a one-game playoff right now and anything can happen," said Max Scherzer, whose five-plus innings Wednesday night set the Tigers up to close it out in Game 4. "Granted, we have our best pitcher going tomorrow, so obviously we like where we sit, but this is a hostile place right now."
If Leyland's long-held theory holds that momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher, the Tigers should feel confident. Yet after a Game 4 rally off their closer, it's hard not to feel some momentum on Oakland's side.
"Yeah, they're pressing," A's outfielder Josh Reddick said, "but they know they've got their best pitcher on the mound. It's going to be an interesting game, and we know we've got to battle and they know they've got to battle because he threw a heck of a game over there."
What had been eight stingy innings from Tigers pitchers, including five dominant ones from Scherzer, went to waste within a three-batter span in the ninth inning. The last of them, Seth Smith's two-run double, tied the game before Coco Crisp's walk-off single sent the Tigers to their second loss in as many nights.
It came together so quickly that there was hardly time to react. By the time Crisp's ground ball through the right side crept under the glove of charging right fielder Avisail Garcia, allowing Smith to dash home unchallenged, it was almost too loud to think.
"I think this is one of the toughest moments I've had in all my career," Valverde said. "It's tough, but you have to be ready for tomorrow. You have to be serious for the game."
A year after Valverde finished perfect in save chances, he has spent much of the year struggling to follow it up. He has had his share of big pitches in tough situations and come through, but after a 49-for-49 campaign last year, this season's 35-for-40 looks like a letdown.
Wednesday felt different, from what looked like undulating mechanics in his delivery -- Valverde insisted it was the same motion he has done all year -- to an arsenal that consisted almost entirely of fastballs until his final couple hitters.
Reddick's ground ball barely eluded Omar Infante's outstretched glove through the right side for a leadoff single, awakening the sellout crowd of 36,385. Once Josh Donaldson lined Valverde's next offering off the left-field fence to put runners at second and third, the crowd was on its feet.
"We were in Detroit last time and he blew me away with three fastballs," Donaldson said. "I wasn't going to let it happen again. He threw me a fastball over the heart of the plate, and I was able to get a good piece of wood on it."
Smith swung and missed at one fastball but didn't miss the next, finding the gap as both runners scored to tie the game at 3.
Valverde nearly took the game into extra innings, getting a foul popup from pinch-hitter George Kottaras and a called third strike on Cliff Pennington.
All he had to worry about was Crisp, who went from goat to hero from Game 2 to Game 3 in the series.
"It was a split-finger down and away," catcher Alex Avila said of the first pitch, "and Crisp just caught it out in front and found a hole."
With that, the plastic coating that had lined Detroit's clubhouse lockers quickly went down, and the intensity for Game 5 went up. While A's players talked about the magic they've had all through this past month, the Tigers talked about the consistent approach they've had through their challenging times all season.
For a team that didn't take over the division race until the last week and a half of the season, it might be fitting.
"You draw on the talent we have, the fact that we know we belong here and we have our best pitcher going," Avila said. "There's a lot games you're going to lose. You're going to lose a lot of close games. They're definitely tough, but we're professionals for a reason. You've just got to come back and get them tomorrow. That's it.
"Yeah, it's tough. I'm upset right now. But you don't cry about it. I'm going to get ready. That was a great game."