October 8, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Victor Martinez-Grant Balfour spat more amusing than inspiring

Detroit — Red meat, and a few appetizers, left over from Monday’s playoff game that saw the A’s whip the Tigers, 6-3, at Comerica Park.

A’s and Tigers don’t quite cut it as big league enemies.

Some of us wondered if there might be a vial or two of bad blood spilled during this division playoff series between Detroit and Oakland.

But it took imagination to think that some fringe version of a Hatfields-McCoys spat could break out between two teams that really require a common division if they care to have a rivalry that generates more from fans than smirks.

It seemed possible when Tigers manager Jim Leyland implied the A’s, who almost did to the Tigers in August what Sherman and Co. did to Georgia in 1865, might have been stealing signs during that series when Oakland hitters bludgeoned everything Detroit tossed at it.

But nothing much came of an insinuation that probably didn’t go over real well among some proud A’s sluggers.

Monday, fuses got short in the ninth when Grant Balfour didn’t like the way Victor Martinez looked at him, and Martinez didn’t like the way Balfour looked back at him. At this watershed moment in moral stances and principled pathways, Balfour and Martinez began a swearing volley that appeared to amuse more people than it disturbed.

And that’s kind of where we’re at with the A’s and Tigers. They can’t quite make it on the animosity scale. The A’s spent most of Monday’s news conference all but laughing at the silliness, which they pretty much acknowledge is a byproduct of Balfour’s fire and suspicions about how batters are looking at him.

The Tigers? They’re down 2-1 in a five-game series that could end today at Comerica Park.

They’d like to get their hackles up over Balfour. But they sort of have to win a game or two before they can afford to get angry at anyone other than themselves.

What happened to the energy on this team — and in this town?

One, simple answer: Miguel Cabrera.

You can feel it in the clubhouse. You see it on the field. You can detect it in the spirits of fans. It was as if they understood after the Game 2 1-0 loss in Oakland that Detroit’s playoff season might well end today.

This palpable, low-pulse air is different from anything we have seen in the last three playoff seasons, beginning with the 2006 breakthrough. There was no sense of futility — not in the initial rounds.

Again, it can be traced to the reality that Cabrera is not Cabrera. He is so interwoven into a batting order’s fabric and to the ways in which it affects them and their at-bats, that you can’t have him playing at a fraction of his capacity and not have it drain a lineup.

Fans can quibble with this premise, and they have a point: Good hitters should still be able to compete. And quality big leaguers are sprinkled throughout Leyland’s lineup.

But fans also must be honest about their perceptions of Detroit’s baseball team when Cabrera is not there to super-charge every game with his one-of-a-kind bat that completely changes the scoreboard dynamics. Those who follow this team know what has happened during the past six weeks.

A superstar, the league’s MVP, has been like a Christmas tree with half of its light strands burned out. And a team dependent upon Cabrera and his talent for the ages, no longer has the same look, the same aura, or, as has been clear for a few weeks now, the same degree of performance.

In all likelihood, you won’t see that wizardry again until spring of 2014.

Jose Veras becomes a talking point.

Best stuff since Veras joined the Tigers, his 123 innings of two-hit, three-strikeout relief work spanning the seventh and eighth innings.

Veras cost the Tigers a bunch when they got him in July’s deadline deal — more than initially was believed. That’s because the player to be named later is an excellent right-handed pitching prospect named David Paulino, who, once he recovers from this year’s Tommy John surgery, could be a nice piece in the Astros refurbishing efforts.

Danry Vasquez, an outfielder who figures to do damage with his left-handed bat, was the initial blue-chip prospect the Tigers sent to the Astros in the swap for Veras. But keep an eye on Paulino, who could be a terrific bonus once he makes it back.

As for Veras, the Tigers will no doubt pick up his $3.25 million bonus for 2014. And hope his splitter and fastball have the steady life that was on display Monday.


Athletics' Daric Barton holds back pitcher Grant Balfour as he goes face to face with Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, right, in the ninth inning. The confrontation started when Tigers batter Victor Martinez started towards Balfour on the mound. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
More Lynn Henning