By Steve Corkran
OAKLAND – Close your eyes, allow your mind to wander and revel in the thought as the A’s and Detroit Tigers do their part to foster ideas of an October playoffs matchup once again.
Sure, it’s not even June but it’s never too early to get excited about the prospect of the two American League powers squaring off in a win-or-go-home series.
Lest anyone forget what that feels like, the Tigers and A’s treated 15,590 fans to another sneak peek Wednesday in a game that had all the makings of a postseason classic, with the A’s prevailing on a Josh Donaldson three-run, walk-off home run in a 3-1 victory.
“For a fan, that was a fun game to watch right there,” A’s starter Scott Kazmir said. “Throughout the whole game, Anibal and I, it just seemed like we were just battling it out, out for out.”
Kazmir and counterpart Anibal Sanchez went toe to toe for almost the entire game, with neither pitcher giving the other team much reason to believe.
It’s the kind of game that’s almost expected when the A’s and Tigers meet and they play their best.
A’s closer Sean Doolittle said the past two games reminded him of playoff games.
“The last two games of this series definitely had that playoff energy, that electricity, that feel,” Doolittle said. “The fans were into it. … When you’re going up against a team like that, it’s fun. This could be a big character-building win for us moving forward.”
This game also showed why the A’s and Tigers lead their respective divisions and why many expect them to meet again in the fall.
Stellar starting pitching, great defense and both teams waiting for the other to blink, fully aware that the first opportunity that presents itself just might be the only one that game.
For the Tigers, that meant a fastball that Kazmir left over the plate in the fourth inning. And Torii Hunter was ready to pounce on it, which he did for a home run that broke up the scoreless game.
One run isn’t much, of course. But when the Tigers have Sanchez on the mound, sometimes that’s plenty.
That almost was the case Wednesday, as Sanchez confounded the A’s for 8 1/3 innings. He didn’t allow a base runner until the third. He didn’t give up a hit until the fourth. No A’s runner made it past first base until Eric Sogard doubled in the sixth.
The A’s finally got Sanchez out of the game after he allowed a one-out double to Coco Crisp on his 111th pitch.
Doolittle, Melvin and others said they sensed that something good was about to happen after a night of hoping against hope.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus summoned closer Joe Nathan at that point. John Jaso followed with a line drive that hit off third baseman Nick Castellanos’ glove and continued into left field. Crisp advanced to third on the play.
Donaldson promptly deposited Nathan’s first pitch well over the left-field wall. It was just a matter of if the ball was fair. It turned out to be plenty fair, which set off a wild celebration on and off the field.
“He just kind of missed in that area where I could hit it,” Donaldson said of Nathan’s slider. “Thankfully, I didn’t miss it.”
No, he didn’t. The ball had plenty of distance and sailed to the right side of the foul pole with room to spare.
Donaldson’s second career walk-off home run gave Kazmir his sixth victory in eight decisions. Kazmir pitched a complete game for the first time since July 3, 2006.
A’s manager Bob Melvin said this was just another in a long line of well-pitched games by Kazmir. What set it apart is that Kazmir didn’t have much room for error.
“When you’re pitching against a guy who is throwing the ball that well and you’re not scoring any runs, you know you have to be pitching perfect,” Melvin said. “He was close to that.”
Kazmir said he fed off the intensity of the game and how well Sanchez pitched.
“You have to pitch like it’s 1-0,” Kazmir said. “You say that whenever you have the lead but that was the case (Wednesday) night. So, every pitch was crucial. You had to focus every pitch, every inning.”
Much as you might expect in a playoff game.