It was about trying to hold the A's down.
"We just didn't pitch good tonight," manager Jim Leyland said. "Plus we let them add on runs."
In some variation, that was Leyland's answer to most of the questions at his postgame media session. He said the first part eight times in just under three minutes. It was fitting after how regularly the A's answered Detroit's rallies.
Cabrera's 43rd home run of the year in the fifth was the second game-tying two-run homer of the evening. Just as with Omar Infante's homer earlier, the A's answered with runs the very next inning, using a two-run sixth to pull ahead for good.
A couple runs later, the A's had the highest run total off Tigers pitching since July 9, when the White Sox put up 11 runs off Justin Verlander and the bullpen. Six of the runs on July 9 came off relievers; the four runs off the Tigers' bullpen on Monday was the most runs allowed since.
Detroit's fifth loss in its last eight home games whittled its lead in the AL Central by half a game, down to 5 1/2 games over idle Cleveland.
"They fought through the end. There's no question about what happened with us today," said starter Anibal Sanchez. "We're in a big series right now. We're in the first game of four games. We have to continue to play hard. We're winning a lot of games right now and we need to continue to play hard."
The numbers off Sanchez showed just how rare his night was. He hadn't given up more than two runs in a game since July 11, a seven-start stretch in which he gave up two runs or fewer over six innings or more every time out. The stinginess had dropped his ERA to 2.45, lowest in the AL.
Three first-inning hits led to two runs and forced Detroit to play catch up from the outset. Two big swings off Oakland starter A.J. Griffin were equalizers, but temporary.
Griffin came to town with a 3.84 ERA despite leading the Majors with 30 home runs allowed. A two-strike fastball up to Infante, who had barely fouled off a 68 mph breaking ball on the previous pitch, bumped up that homer total. It also tied the game at 2.
The deadlock lasted one batter into the third before Coco Crisp sent a Sanchez pitch into the right-field tunnel for his fourth homer in five games and his 14th on the year.
"He's a smart guy," Sanchez said. "I think he waited for one pitch and hoped we'd throw it, especially in a bad location."
Sanchez hadn't walked more than two batters in a game since he walked five on July 19. His consecutive walks in the fourth, plus a leadoff walk in the fifth, reflected both his struggles with command and a patient approach from Oakland hitters to wait him out.
"With the way that he's been pitching lately, I think it was big for us to be selective and lay off his changeup out of the zone," said Daric Barton, whose RBI single was the only ball put in play against Sanchez among the last nine batters he faced, buried among three walks and five strikeouts.
"He was just totally out of sync for whatever reason," Leyland said. "Certainly you're allowed to have those. He's been absolutely fantastic. That's one of those games where it just wasn't his day."
Sanchez used up 112 pitches over five innings, but kept it a 4-2 game. It wasn't enough to convince Griffin to walk Cabrera on a 3-1 count with two outs in the fifth. Griffin tried to put a breaking ball around the outside corner, but it wasn't far enough off the plate for Cabrera, who sent it out to right to tie it again.
Cabrera's third home run in four days moved him within three of Baltimore's Chris Davis for the AL lead in the only Triple Crown category he still trails.
With Sanchez off the hook and a combination of left-handed batters and switch-hitters due up for Oakland, lefty Jose Alvarez entered hoping to hold the game in the sixth. The A's pounced for four singles, including another RBI each for Barton and Crisp. Oakland's only out off Alvarez (1-4) came on a sacrifice-bunt attempt.
Alberto Callaspo's seventh-inning RBI single off Al Alburquerque stretched the lead to 7-4, yet it still almost wasn't enough. As Cabrera stepped to the plate again in the bottom half, he represented the potential tying run thanks to a two-out walk to Austin Jackson and a Torii Hunter bloop single off Danny Otero. This time, the A's walked Cabrera after he watched two pitches off the outside corner.
Oakland took its chances with Prince Fielder, sending in lefty Sean Doolittle to face him. Fielder's brief pause at the plate when he hit his ball to left-center raised some hopes that it might carry into the gap. Crisp, cutting across center field after playing Fielder to pull, dashed those hopes quickly.
"I hit it good," Fielder said. "Well-hit ball, but just better defense."
Victor Martinez, who had just missed a home run in the sixth, hit his 11th of the year in the eighth to cut the lead back to three, setting up Hunter as the potential go-ahead run in the eighth before Ryan Cook struck him out. One more rally in the ninth plated Fielder before Grant Balfour left the tying run at the plate with Matt Tuiasosopo and Infante groundouts for his 33rd save.