October 8, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Flailing Tigers teetering close to postseason flameout

Detroit — The ill winds are picking up and the chill is growing. The Tigers are desperately searching for a spark, for a home run, for anything to lift the malaise before it’s too late.

Either they find it today in a crucial Game 4 against the A’s, or it’s over. They’re not hitting, except in one-inning bursts, and signs of frustration are mounting.

In the ninth inning of their 6-3 loss Monday, Victor Martinez yelled back at A’s pitcher Grant Balfour, and within seconds, the dugouts emptied, the bullpens emptied and the Comerica Park crowd was on its feet. But it takes more than a mini-outburst to light a major outburst and it flickered out quickly, no punches, no ejections, no damage.

It’s the story of the series so far for the Tigers, who are doing minimal damage to the A’s pitchers and trail 2-1. The teams have played 27 innings and the Tigers have failed to score in 25. Then on Monday, their pitching let them down, as the A’s rocked Anibal Sanchez for three home runs.

The hitting lethargy has persisted long enough that it’s beyond troubling, and closing in on debilitating. No one expected them to pound away against the A’s, but they’re not even pecking away right now. Their offense is stagnant for various reasons, from Miguel Cabrera’s injury to Austin Jackson’s woes (1-for-11), perhaps even to Torii Hunter’s sore left shoulder, heavily wrapped after the game.

The Tigers haven’t hit a home run in the series and if something doesn’t ignite, it’ll be up to Doug Fister on the mound this afternoon . The Tigers appear to have another favorable pitching matchup against A’s rookie Dan Straily, but matchups mean nothing if sluggers don’t slug.

“We’ve been in the playoffs three straight years, and we always get asked about pressure,” catcher Alex Avila said. “It’s not even in our minds. This is what we live for.”

Short burst

To live longer, the Tigers need to show considerably more life. It was there in an emotional flash on a dreary Monday afternoon, as Martinez led off the ninth against Balfour, the A’s volatile closer. After Martinez fouled off a pitch, he looked at Balfour, who stared back and shouted — sanitized version here — “What are you looking at?!”

A few snappy expletives flew and Martinez advanced toward the mound, and it was hard to tell if he was livid or simply annoyed.

“I don’t take that (stuff),” Martinez said. “I’m not a rookie to let him intimidate me with little (stuff) like that. I don’t even know this guy. I don’t know if you can call it frustration, but it’s definitely not fun when you’re down 2-1 in a short series.”

A lot of people don’t know the A’s very well, but this is more than a bunch of scruffy scrappers. Balfour is one of the game’s best closers, and the feisty Australian is known for his colorful on-mound outbursts. Martinez didn’t want to hear it at the time, and the issue likely is closed, even if the wounds are open.

“We’re all fired up,” Balfour said. “Maybe he’s got some frustrations.”

The Tigers are getting out-clubbed, although that can change with one swing. First baseman Brandon Moss destroyed them with four home runs in a late-August series in Comerica Park, and clubbed another in the fifth inning of this one. That broke a 3-3 tie, and it came right after the Tigers finally had struck with hits from key players.

Martinez doubled in a run. Jhonny Peralta, in his first playoff start in leftfield after serving a 50-game suspension, followed with a two-run single. The pressure was lifted, the crowd was noisy and the series appeared to shift, until it shifted right back.

Now, the situation is officially dangerous, if not dire.

“Nothing is over, nothing is over,” Sanchez said. “(Tonight) is another day, another chance.”

One more chance

The days and the chances and the innings are dwindling, but they’re definitely not over. If the Tigers can survive in front of another big home crowd tonight, Jim Leyland could go back to Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander for Game 5 back in Oakland.

Sanchez’s wobbly outing notwithstanding, pitching isn’t the issue. The Tigers scored three runs in the first inning of the opener and didn’t score again until the fourth inning Monday, a stretch of 20 barren innings. They’ve been wildly inconsistent for a long time, slumping most of September and into October, and if it continues any longer, this postseason run will end in a bitter chill. Going back to last year’s World Series, the Tigers have scored three runs or fewer in seven straight postseason games.

For those seeking hints of a revival, they might point to the Martinez-Balfour spat. That certainly stirred things up, however briefly. Martinez lined out on the next pitch and Balfour finished the inning unscathed.

“If we need any more motivation, then we’re in big trouble,” Avila said. “What happened there is just a lot of testosterone, no big deal. We’ve been through this before. We know what to do.”

They have the means to do it, especially with their pitching. But they’re down to the narrow, nervous margins now, still feverishly hunting for a way to hit back.


Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, right, watches in the dugout as the Tigers trail in the ninth inning of Game 3. The A's won 6-3 to take a 2-1 lead and can close out the American League Division Series with a victory Tuesday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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