OAKLAND, Calif. – The magic, this time, arrived over the plate, in the heart of the strike zone, dead straight and exceedingly hittable.
Time met place. Dead mic met fat lady.
Jose Valverde, the ostentatious Papa Grande, had stood aghast in the vortex of the bottom of the ninth inning. He'd held a baseball in his hand, twirled it, stared it down. It had forsaken him. Three outs from the American League Championship Series, it had forsaken him. One out from the balm of extra innings, it had forsaken him.
"I think this is the toughest thing," he said later, "of my whole career."
In a brooding ballpark here where the story doesn't ever end, the Oakland A's scored three runs in what were to be the final bittersweet moments of their ridiculous season. The last was carried home by Seth Smith, driven home with two out by Coco Crisp, and worn home by Valverde, the Detroit Tigers closer.
"It's hard," he said.
[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Dave Brown on Oakland's wild ride]
Champagne was hustled from the visitors' clubhouse. A cooler stocked with beer dawdled behind. The A's had won, 4-3, on Wednesday night. They had won with great style and unfathomable drama, you know, like they do. They'll play Game 5 on Thursday night, they'll get Justin Verlander, and their last hope is to finish the three-game home sweep of the Tigers. You know, just like they did a week ago to the Texas Rangers.
Crazy what happens when a ballclub lingers long enough and then believes long enough. When the ninth inning dawned, they had scored a single run – unearned – over three hours of a game that could have them eliminated. They'd not put two hits together in an inning. They'd struck out 11 times. They'd run into a misguided and backbreaking out at third base in the sixth inning.
And the Tigers appeared to have had enough of this hardball voodoo in the city by the City by the Bay. They'd come with Max Scherzer, who'd be relentless. They'd come with Prince Fielder, who'd hit a home run. They'd come with the steady hand of Jim Leyland, who'd match pitcher to batter for the final 11 outs. Except he got only 10.
Not the perfect Valverde of 2011 but presumably close enough, this Valverde spat and bounded to the mound with a two-run lead. With him, he carried the fastball, the splitter, and the closeout moment. The feverish A's would have to find comfort in their remarkable summer, in all they did when so few were watching. The pizza-pizza Tigers of the payroll sledgehammer, of the mildly unimpressive slog to their own division title, they would be reborn in this moment.
Only Josh Reddick singled. Josh Donaldson jumped a first-pitch fastball and laced it to left-center field. And Seth Smith would pound another fastball, this into the other gap. In eight pitches, the lead was gone and Game 5 was back in play.
"It was really loud," Smith said. "My ears were hurting a little bit. Fastball away off the plate. Another fastball off the plate that I swung at. And then another fastball that I was able to get the barrel to."
Two outs came quickly. Still Smith stood at second base. The crowd leaned in and begged for one more hit to end it. Crisp, who'd dropped a ball to lose Game 2 and snared a ball to win Game 3, stood in.
"He's definitely a tough guy," catcher Alex Avila would say later.
This time, the ball rolled into right field, a clean single. Smith turned third. On deck, Stephen Drew, who'd run into that awful out at third base three innings before, exhorted Smith to slide, then broke into a grin, then jumped with glee. The Tigers' rookie, Avisail Garcia, had overrun that ball in right field, not that it mattered. Smith would score, and the A's would fly again from their dugout, and Crisp would be the latest hero.
"Yeah, well," Leyland said, "it's baseball. I mean, that's the greatest game of all. It looked like we were going to get it."
Leyland's old friend Tony La Russa stood several floors above field level. He watched the A's, a team he once managed to greatness, play themselves into one more day. He watched his friend return to his clubhouse.
La Russa mouthed a single word.
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Valverde believed he had thrown the ball well. He regretted a pitch or two, though he couldn't recall which. Nearby, Verlander absently stretched his torso, shrugged his shoulders. He was entering game mode. It's his now.
"Those things happen," Verlander said.
They do, it turns out. They come from some dark corner of this ballpark, and they find a time and a place. Some might think of it as magic. Most would consider it otherwise.
"At some point," Smith said, "it's got to be just good baseball."
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