October 8, 2013 at 9:00 pm

John Niyo

Tigers' Houdini act sets up dramatic Game 5 vs. A's

Detroit — It started with a bloop, and it ended with a broken bat.

In between, there was also that bobbled ball by a fan in right field.

But this is how it had to start for the Tigers if they were going to avoid a bitter end to their season. And now that they have, who knows where this will take them?

On a night filled with tension — and some of the most dramatic playoff theater we’ve seen at Comerica Park — the Tigers staved off elimination with a 8-6 victory over the Oakland A’s in Game 4 of the American League Divison Series.

Max Scherzer working his way in and out of trouble to preserve a one-run lead in the eighth inning — escaping a no-out, bases-loaded jam with power pitching and remarkable intensity – was undoubtedly the climactic moment Tuesday evening. Scherzer’s animated fist-pumping return to the dugout more than matched the roaring crowd’s salute.

That wasn’t a relief appearance so much as it was a rallying cry.

By that point, in fact, it was hard to recall just how uncomfortably quiet it had gotten in the ballpark earlier. Before the boos started raining down on the home team, I mean. And everyone but the visiting team had that sinking feeling about where this was headed.

The Tigers’ strangely-silent bats slumbered through four more hitless innings to start Game 4, continuing a series-long struggle at the plate. Miguel Cabrera, limping again after a charging throw in the field early on, got jammed on a 2-0 count to end the fourth inning with a shallow fly out to center field. And as he jogged slowly to first base, the reigning AL MVP slammed his bat to the ground in disgust and screamed an expletive to the sky.

Needed jolt

But trailing 3-0 in the fifth, Prince Fielder lunged at an 0-2 pitch and slapped a bloop single that dropped in the outfield grass just behind third base. Victor Martinez followed with a single, and then Jhonny Peralta, the exiled shortstop who’d returned after a 50-game drug suspension just in time for the playoffs, finally put a jolt into the crowd with a three-run homer into the bullpen in left field.

Martinez was the hero in seventh inning, tying the game again at 4-4 with a shot off Sean Doolittle that reached a fan’s outstretched hands before it landed safely beyond the wall in right field. A replay review upheld the homer, and the symmetry. Doolittle hadn’t given up a home run since Aug. 26. In Detroit. To Martinez.

And that’s when the script writer started taking a few liberties.

With two men on and two outs and facing an 0-2 count, Austin Jackson, the Tigers’ leadoff hitter who’d done nothing but whiff in this series, finally swung and made contact. His bat shattered, the ball sailed softly into right field in front of the A’s Josh Reddick, and the go-ahead run scored easily.

Jackson clapped his hands and grinned as he reached first base. The crowd of 43,958, which had taken to booing him earlier in the game, stomped its collective feet. And the Tigers were suddenly, mercifully on the attack.

On the move, even. Headed back to Oakland.

Jhonny Peralta launches a three-run homer in the fifth inning Tuesday in Game 4. The Tigers defeated the A's 8-6 to set up a pivotal Game 5 Thursday in Oakland, Calif. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News
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