Home plate umpire Gary Darling, second from right, steps between Detroit Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez, left, and Oakland Athletics relief pitcher Grant Balfour (50) during the ninth inning of Game 3 in Detroit.
DETROIT — The Tigers have the best starting rotation in baseball, the most productive lineup in the American League, and a franchise-record $152.9 million payroll.
If ever there was a team built to withstand the vagaries of the postseason, they are it. Yet there stood Detroit’s collection of stars on familiarly treacherous ground Monday afternoon at Comerica Park.
For the second straight year, the Tigers moved to the brink of an early playoff exit with a 6-3 loss to the no-name — but supremely talented — Oakland Athletics in Game 3 of the division series.
All around, it was a dreary day as Anibal Sanchez endured the worst home start of his season, and the manhunt continued for the Tigers’ bats. Sanchez, the league’s ERA leader, was rocked for six runs on eight hits in 4⅓ innings while the offense managed only a brief burst of life before retreating into its October trance.
Down 2-1 in the series, Detroit will give the ball today to Doug Fister with the hope of earning a return trip to Oakland for Game 5 Thursday night.
“There are no tricks,” manager Jim Leyland said. “We’ve got to win the game [today] and try to extend it. It’s that simple.”
In the division series a year ago, the A’s pushed Detroit to the brink before the Tigers won a deciding fifth game and rallied to the World Series. Their ability to display a similar resilience this year will, for better or worse, define a season that began with all-or-nothing expectations.
“It’s frustrating,” outfielder Torii Hunter said. “We want to keep the life going, keep the party going. This is not over yet.”
By the end Monday, the frustration spilled over into a bench-clearing altercation after Detroit’s Victor Martinez and Oakland closer Grant Balfour traded glares.
With one out in the ninth inning, Martinez fouled off a pitch and gazed at Balfour. The pitcher, a tightly wired character who often talks to himself on the mound, asked what he was looking at in language not fit for print.
“I’m not a rookie he can intimidate with that little stuff,” Martinez said. “I don’t even know the guy.”
Martinez jawed back and walked toward Balfour, emptying the benches and drawing a warning to both benches from plate umpire Gary Darling.
“It’s playoff baseball, and [Balfour] was wound up a little bit,” Leyland said. “Victor took offense to it, and I don’t blame him.”
Whether the Tigers can redirect that fire into a win today remains to be seen. On Monday, they gave a late-arriving matinee crowd of 43,973 little to cheer.
Sanchez, who would be an ace on most teams, adeptly avoided trouble early before cracking in the third inning. The A’s went ahead 1-0 on a two-out grounder that skipped past third baseman Miguel Cabrera for an error, then piled on with homers by Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss, and Seth Smith.
It was Sanchez’s shortest start since June 15, and the first time he allowed more than one home run in a game this season.
“He obviously wasn’t sharp,” Leyland said. “Sometimes, he starts out a little slow, and you figure he’s going to get it going. Today, he just really didn’t.”
Neither did a reworked lineup. Desperate times called for, well, starting Jhonny Peralta in left field — a move that yielded an early return. The shortstop’s two-run single off Oakland starter Jarrod Parker tied the game at three in the fourth inning.
But it was Detroit’s only show of life. While the Tigers snapped their scoreless innings streak at 20, they managed just three hits outside of the three-run fourth and have now scored just 20 runs in the last 10 games.
“The pressure is off of us now,” Hunter said. “We’re going to go out there and play our game, and we’re not worried about too much. That’s what we need to do. I think we’re trying to do too much. This isn’t over.”