October 8, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Tigers are big spenders with big hitters, but cost-effective A's proving to be better

Detroit — If there was a message sent in that bizarre, profane exchange between Oakland’s Grant Balfour and Detroit’s Victor Martinez late in Monday’s Game 3 of the American League Division Series, it probably was a nonverbal one, actually.

Because with the home team now facing an elimination game today at Comerica Park, the unspoken truth is this: The Tigers can glare and stare all they want, but the A’s aren’t going to blink.

And why should they, really?

The Tigers, with their big stars and bigger salaries, may have been the presumptive favorites coming into this series. But Billy Beane’s bargain-bin bunch has called everyone’s bluff, belting three homers off Anibal Sanchez in Monday’s 6-3 victory to push Detroit to the brink.

And just like Balfour, Oakland’s notoriously foul-mouthed closer, they’re offering no apologies for it.

“He gave me the death stare,” Balfour said, when asked what precipitated the benches-clearing incident leading off the bottom of the ninth. “(Martinez) had the eyes locked on me like he wanted to come out.”

So Balfour, the Aussie who treats each at-bat like a rugby scrum, invited him to do just that, in his own colorful way.

“Why the (expletive) are you looking at me, man?” he shouted at Martinez, who didn’t appreciate the question.

“I mean, (expletive) him,” Martinez explained later. “I don’t take that (expletive).”

In the end, no punches were thrown, only insults. Warnings were issued, but no harm was done. And after Balfour had finished off another hitless inning for the Tigers, he shrugged the whole thing off.

“I like a little fire,” Balfour said. “And obviously he does, too. So it makes a bit of fun, right?”

Right. Well, the A’s certainly are having fun with this series. The other guys? They’re grasping at motivational straws, sending late-game messages like NHLers and scribbling Mark Twain quotations in the clubhouse.

“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” the white board read Monday.

That saying probably fits the A’s more than it does the Tigers. But expectations are what you make of them, I guess.

It’s just at the moment they appear to be making a mess of the Tigers, whose $150 million payroll surely is worth more than a first-round playoff exit. They’ve managed to score runs in just two of 27 innings thus far, and Monday added a new twist to their own fate, perhaps, as Sanchez — so consistent and so effective all season — inexplicably laid an egg.

Throw in a couple Oakland runs aided by Detroit’s defensive limitations — an error by Miguel Cabrera and a weak throw home from shortstop-turned-left fielder Jhonny Peralta helped stake the A’s to a 3-0 lead — and it’s not hard to argue the better team is winning this series.

More for its money

Oakland, with the fourth-lowest payroll in the major leagues, had a better record in a better division, earning home-field advantage in this series for the second year in a row. And while the Tigers would have Max Scherzer going for them in Game 5, the A’s have history on their side — teams with a 2-1 lead have won 35 of 43 ALDS.

The edge for Detroit was supposed to be starting pitching, and for two games in Oakland the aces held up their end of the bargain. But the A’s got the leadoff hitter on base in each of the first four innings Monday, culminating in Josh Reddick’s home run in the fourth off Sanchez, who struggled with his command all afternoon, leaving off-speed pitches up in the zone. The AL ERA champ was finally yanked with one out in the fifth — a batter too late, clearly — after he “made a couple of real bad pitches,” according to manager Jim Leyland. Sanchez allowed nine home runs in 182 innings this season, and hadn’t had a multi-homer game since last September.

To the A’s, who’ve matured from scrappy to scary in the last two years, staving off elimination twice last October and now forcing the issue themselves this time, this all makes perfect sense, of course.

“That’s our logic with our team,” said Reddick, 2-for-20 against Tigers pitching this season before Monday. “We’re gonna strike out, but we’re gonna hit the long ball. And once we get those going, it’s gonna be a good day.”

Another bad day for the Tigers bats left them searching for answers — again. And if you think they’re struggling at the plate, you should hear them try to explain the power outage.

Hunter, who jammed his shoulder diving for a ball in right field in the first inning, suggested his teammates need to relax.

“I think we’re trying to do a little too much,” he said.

Fielder, who actually had two hits and some excellent at-bats Monday, politely disagreed.

“This is the playoffs,” he said. “You’re supposed to try hard, you know?”

A minute later, Fielder was asked what the Tigers mind-set is heading into today’s Game 4.

“I think we’re gonna win,” he said, smiling. “That’s about it. Nothing too deep.”

They’re in deep now, though, like it or not. And I know what you’re thinking: $150 million says they win today to force a Game 5.

But $150 million says they’d better.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Josh Reddick is congratuled after a solo home run in the fourth inning, one of three homers hit by the A's. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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