DETROIT -- This was a terrific baseball game, an advertisement for the sport.
On a late August afternoon in Motown, two genuine postseason contenders squared off in what turned out to be a classic. The happy ending went to the Detroit Tigers, while the Oakland Athletics suffered a painful defeat.
But there had been something for everyone over the last four games at Comerica Park. The first three games had been won by the A's. But in the finale, the form chart was almost never followed. There were stunning developments in both directions. This and a late-inning diet of drama is what baseball can give us, and did give us Thursday afternoon.
For the record, the Tigers prevailed, 7-6, on a three-run, walk-off home run by Torii Hunter. The home run came off Oakland closer Grant Balfour, who had been ultra-reliable, converting 33 of 34 save opportunities. Hunter is a veteran presence, widely admired, respected, liked in the game. But the way Balfour had been pitching, this ending was surprising. But then, the rest of the game also contained plenty of unexpected turns.
Maybe the finish reflected the degree of difficulty in sweeping a four-game series from the Tigers in Detroit. Climbing Mt. Everest in sandals might be tougher. The Tigers hadn't suffered a four-game sweep at home in nine years. That happened against the Twins in 2004 when the Tigers weren't good, but the Twins were.
Balfour, who had given up two walks and a single before the home run, readily shouldered the blame with complete candor.
"I had nothing," he said. "I didn't have a good fastball, I didn't have a breaking ball. I went out there with nothing, to be honest. I knew that warming up in the 'pen, I just had to tell myself, 'All right, let's go.' It's not a good lineup to go out there when you've got nothing. But you've got to figure out something....I let us down today. I'm angry with myself."
On paper, the Tigers weren't supposed to lose this game. That was because Max Scherzer was starting for them and he was 19-1.
Scherzer also had a 2.73 ERA, and a WHIP of 0.91, so his work had suitable merit. But the Tigers were supporting him with a league-leading 7.32 runs per nine innings in his starts. Between Scherzer's performances and the work of his teammates with the bats, the Tigers were just short of unbeatable in his starts.
On the other hand, the A's were starting Bartolo Colon, who had been their best starter this season. But Colon, 40, was just coming off a stretch on the disabled list with a groin strain. Beyond that, he had not won a decision against the Tigers since April 2003, a period that included 12 starts against Detroit. That 2003 Tigers club, you will recall, lost 119 games. Colon, pitching for the White Sox at the time, was 1-2 against Detroit that year.
So naturally nothing went the way of expectations. The A's hit Scherzer hard -- six runs (five earned) over five innings, six extra-base hits, including two home runs and a triple.
Colon, meanwhile, worked five innings, giving up only one run. The seven hits he allowed were all singles. On this day, he was the better starting pitcher, better even than 19-1 Max Scherzer. By the time both starters had departed the game, Oakland had a 6-1 lead.
Asked about the approach of his hitters against Scherzer, A's manager Bob Melvin said: "I thought it was great. Got on him early, made him work hard. That's typically how you get a good starting pitcher and we got him out of the game quicker than he's been in a while. It was great, against one of the best pitchers in baseball, maybe the best pitcher, to knock him out as quick as we did, to score some runs off him, it continues the good offensive feeling that we have."
This game obviously ended in bitter disappointment for the A's. But they did have those three victories, which added up to much more than a consolation prize.
"Obviously, this one's going to sting for a little while," catcher Stephen Vogt said. "But we'll get over it and be ready to go tomorrow and keep playing the way we've been playing."
When the Athletics arrived in Motown, the Tigers had the American League's best record and best team ERA. The A's had been playing at a slightly under .500 pace since the All-Star break.
But an A's offense that had been sputtering scored 28 runs in the first three games. Oakland hitters, on their way to three victories, relentlessly hammered mistakes by Detroit pitchers and in the third game of the series produced a 14-run, 21-hit explosion.
The pain of Thursday's loss was evident. But there was no erasing those first three victories. The A's made a distinct impression.
"I tip my cap to them," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "They're a very good team."
"It's nice to win three games if you look at it when you're going in," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "But when you're in position to win the fourth one you want to win the fourth one."
Maybe the A's weren't supposed to win this series, but they did. Maybe the Tigers, eight innings into the series finale, weren't supposed to win this one, but they did. This series, this final contest, reminded us of how compelling baseball can be.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.