DETROIT -- Bases loaded with A's, the Tigers leading by a run and nobody out in the eighth inning. In a season of extraordinary achievement, Max Scherzer, in the unfamiliar role of relief pitcher, was being challenged as perhaps never before.
The season hanging in the balance, Tigers catcher Alex Avila settled into his crouch and began to guide Scherzer through the crisis one step, one pitch at a time.
"I've seen him fired up," Avila said. "That's why I gave him that nickname, 'Mad Max.' It's when he goes to an enthusiasm level when he needs it -- and the situation called for it."
Protecting a 5-4 lead, Scherzer had gotten himself into this mess with a fit of wildness: two walks around a Yoenis Cespedes double. Now it was up to Mad Max to get the Tigers out of it.
Down goes Josh Reddick on a full-count changeup. Down goes Stephen Vogt on an 0-2 heater. And out goes pinch-hitter Alberto Callaspo on a full-count fastball driven to left-center field, within range of the mercurial Austin Jackson. Comerica Park exhaled.
In the afterglow of an 8-6 Tigers triumph in Game 4 of the American League Division Series on Tuesday, the 17 pitches to these three hitters came shining through as the most important of a 21-win season that has Scherzer positioned for his first career AL Cy Young Award.
The Tigers will be facing the A's in a decisive Game 5 on Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET at O.co Coliseum on TBS, with Justin Verlander dealing against Bartolo Colon or engaging Sonny Gray in a rematch of their Game 2 classic.
The show goes back to the West Coast for a grand finale in large part because Scherzer found what he needed to get the three most vital outs of Detroit's season.
"It was surreal to be able to get an out in that situation," Scherzer said, "and keep the one-run lead with the bases loaded, no outs in the eighth. Maybe it's not the ninth inning, but that's the stuff you dream about ... and I was able to do it."
This was Scherzer's second relief appearance since his rookie season of 2008 with Arizona. He had a hand in the Tigers' 3-2 decision over the Yankees in Game 5 of the 2011 ALDS at Yankee Stadium, relieving Doug Fister -- the same guy he replaced on Tuesday night -- to get four outs.
"It's such a different experience," Scherzer said. "To be able to get out of that jam, I mean, that's something I'll never forget. That's something I'm not [normally] asked to do, and tonight, I was."
Avila and Scherzer were in sync, reaching agreement with the most pivotal of those 17 deliveries to Reddick. Having unleashed six consecutive fastballs in the 94-96-mph range, two fouled away, Scherzer knew it was time for a change.
"He definitely swung at a ball," Avila said of the changeup that came in low and inside, evading Reddick's swing. "It's hard to lay off a pitch there when you've seen six fastballs. Reddick had a great at-bat. I'll say nine guys out of 10 swing at that pitch -- and if he takes it, he's lucky."
Reddick, who doubled in the fourth inning against Fister and also homered in Game 3, was looking to break it open and send the A's to the AL Championship Series on Saturday.
"I'm always in my mind going to sit on a 96, 97 [mph] fastball," Reddick said. "I can't sit on a change on a 3-2 count. Looking back, I wish I had taken it. Scherzer made a great pitch, and I swung at it."
Scherzer liked the idea of the changeup and was able to get away with less-than-flawless execution.
"I bounced it on the wrong side of the plate," Scherzer said. "I pulled it. But it still had the effectiveness of looking like a fastball, because it got a swing and miss. That was a huge out for me."
Next came Vogt. The A's catcher singled leading off the seventh as the first hitter Scherzer faced out of the bullpen, scoring the go-ahead run on Coco Crisp's third of four hits.
In his first at-bat against Scherzer, Vogt said, "He threw me a good changeup down I was able to drive up the middle. When we got in the bases-loaded situation, I got pitches to hit that I should have put in play. We've got to put them in play in that situation."
Vogt fouled off two fastballs and a changeup before swinging through Scherzer's 98-mph heater.
Here came Callaspo, the former Angels infielder who has been a clutch weapon for the A's down the stretch. He fouled off two fastballs and took two changeups and a fastball for balls, running the count full.
"Callaspo, being a veteran hitter, doesn't chase," Avila said. "And he didn't chase in that at-bat. He took some close pitches. With two outs, we didn't want to take a chance. He got a fastball, and right off that bat, I thought it was going to fall in. But it hung up, and Austin caught up with it. He hit it too hard."
In Mad Max form, Scherzer reacted emotionally coming off the mound. A crowd that had been quiet much of the night roared to life, and the Tigers scored three times in the bottom half to carry an 8-4 lead into the ninth.
The A's scored twice on Cespedes' single and had the tying run at the plate when Seth Smith swung through a third strike by Joaquin Benoit to end it.
"This has been a great series, and I expect another great game in Oakland," said Avila, who was too focused on the task at hand to consider the win-or-go-home consequences.
In relief, Scherzer's second win of the series meant more to his team and his city than the 22 that preceded it this season. It meant survival.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less