Monday October 8, 2012

DETROIT -- Al Alburquerque reached out and snagged a sharp grounder to the mound -- then planted a little kiss on the ball before tossing it to first.

The relieved reliever gave his Detroit teammates a reason to laugh in ninth inning of a tight game. Moments later, the Tigers were celebrating.

Don Kelly scored the tying run on a wild pitch in the eighth, then hit a bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth that lifted the Tigers over the Oakland Athletics 5-4 Sunday for a 2-0 lead in their AL playoff series.

Detroit overcame three A’s leads and seesawed to victory. It was 1-all before a wild final three innings that included a key error by Oakland center fielder Coco Crisp, two game-tying wild pitches and several momentum changes.

Alburquerque kept it tied in the ninth when he got Yoenis Cespedes to hit a comebacker with men on first and third and two outs. He gave the ball a quick smooch before throwing underhand to first.

"I just did it," he said. "It was the emotion of the game. I wasn’t trying to be a hot dog."

Oakland outfielder Josh Reddick wasn’t thrilled.

"We didn’t appreciate that. I thought it was immature and not very professional," Reddick said. "You don’t do that on the field. Save it for the dugout. That’s all I’m going to say."

Detroit will go for a sweep of the division series matchup in Game 3 on Tuesday at Oakland.

Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera doubled twice for the Tigers, hit a fly ball that Crisp dropped for two runs and later singled in the ninth.

It was the sixth straight postseason loss for the A’s, all to Detroit. The Tigers swept Oakland in the 2006 AL championship series, winning the series on Magglio Ordonez’s homer in Game 4 -- which was Detroit’s last sudden-death postseason win before Sunday.

Omar Infante and Cabrera hit back-to-back singles off Grant Balfour with one out in the ninth. With runners on first and third, Prince Fielder was intentionally walked, bringing up Kelly, who had stayed in the game as the designated hitter after pinch-running the previous inning.

"Was looking for a fastball and I got it," Kelly said. "It’s a great feeling, to be able to go out there in that situation and do that."

Kelly’s fly to right was plenty deep enough to score Infante without a play at the plate. It was another big playoff moment for Kelly, who hit a home run last year when the Tigers beat the New York Yankees in the decisive fifth game of the division series.

A favorite of manager Jim Leyland, Kelly hit .186 during the regular season but made the postseason roster as a pinch-running option who can also play any position in the field.

"It takes everybody to contribute and we got contributions from everybody," Leyland said.

Alburquerque missed most of the season after offseason surgery on his throwing elbow. He came on to face Cespedes with the Tigers in a jam, and that one out was enough to earn him the win.

And the right-hander entertained his teammates in the process with a bit of, um, comic relief.

"We were cracking up in the dugout," Detroit pitcher Max Scherzer said. "We were like, ‘Did he really just kiss the ball?’ ... Alburquerque does some crazy things on the mound."

It was tied at 4 after both teams made their share of mistakes in the seventh and eighth. Cliff Pennington gave the A’s the lead with an RBI single in the seventh, but Crisp dropped Cabrera’s two-out flyball in the bottom half, allowing two runs to score.

Oakland tied it in the eighth on a wild pitch by Joaquin Benoit, and Reddick followed with a solo homer to give the A’s a 4-3 lead. Then it was Ryan Cook’s turn to throw a tying wild pitch, allowing Kelly to score.

Pennington nearly came through again for Oakland in the ninth, but his deep drive down the left-field line was just foul.

"We just need to win a game," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. "If you start thinking about three games ahead, you lose your focus on Tuesday’s game."

On a drizzly day at Comerica Park, the Tigers and A’s were sloppy with the game on the line.

With runners on first and second and two out in the seventh, Cabrera lifted a fly to center. Crisp, charging hard, tried to make a basket catch but bobbled the ball. He nearly recovered to make a falling grab, but the ball popped out of his glove and the Tigers took a 3-2 lead.

"I saw it come off the heel of my glove, and I tried to grab again," Crisp said. "I even went for it barehanded, but I couldn’t get it."

Cespedes led off the eighth with a single and stole second and third. With one out and the infield in, Benoit threw a wild pitch to allow the tying run. The worst was still to come for the Detroit reliever, who allowed Reddick’s homer to right that put Oakland ahead 4-3.

Reddick had struck out in all six at-bats in the series before that.

Oakland again gave up the lead immediately. The A’s have taken the lead four times in this series, but on each occasion they failed to hold it through the bottom half of the inning.

Doug Fister allowed two runs and six hits in seven innings for Detroit, striking out eight. Rookie Tommy Milone was impressive for the A’s, allowing a run and five hits in six innings. He struck out six.

Fister gave the A’s trouble early with his slow, sweeping breaking ball, but Oakland hit four singles in the third. Crisp’s slow roller to third turned into an infield hit when Cabrera threw wide to first. Stephen Drew struck out looking -- and had words for plate umpire Mark Wegner -- but Cespedes followed with a run-scoring single.

Oakland nearly scored again on a single to right by Brandon Moss, but rookie Avisail Garcia threw Crisp out at home.

The A’s showed frustration with the plate umpire during Game 1, and that spilled over to Sunday. Reddick struck out looking for the third out of the third and threw his bat away immediately. Wegner took off his mask and stared at the Oakland hitter as he headed back toward the dugout, but the situation didn’t escalate.

Cabrera hit a one-out double in the bottom of the third -- to the same spot in left-center as his double in the first. He went to third on a single by Fielder and scored on a dribbler by Delmon Young that was too slow to be a double play.

Milone retired 10 in a row, starting with Young’s RBI groundout.

NOTES: Balfour was charged with the loss. ... Oakland has struck out 23 times in the first two games. ... Benoit allowed 14 homers during the regular season, easily his most since 2004, when he spent some time as a starter. ... The A’s are hoping LHP Brett Anderson is healthy enough to start Game 3 against Anibal Sanchez. Anderson missed the last couple weeks of the regular season because of a strained right oblique.

Nationals 3, Cardinals 2

ST. LOUIS -- Rookies in the postseason, the Washington Nationals played like poised veterans.

The Nationals escaped a bases-loaded jam in the seventh inning, pinch hitter Tyler Moore blooped a two-out, two-run single in the eighth and Washington beat the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals 3-2 Sunday in an NL playoff opener.

The Nationals, who had never come close to making the playoffs since moving from Montreal for the 2005 season, overcame a wild start by 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez.

Reliever Ryan Mattheus needed just two pitches to bail out the Nationals in the seventh with St. Louis ahead 2-1. Tyler Clippard worked around an error in the eighth and Drew Storen saved it with a 1-2-3 ninth.

The NL East champion Nationals led the majors with 98 wins this season, and brought postseason baseball to Washington for the first time since 1933. The Nats go for a 2-0 series lead Monday when Jordan Zimmermann opposes Jaime Garcia.

The Cardinals made it to the best-of-five division series by beating Atlanta in the wild-card matchup Friday. But St. Louis wasted a 10-strikeout gem by Adam Wainwright, failing to capitalize enough on Gonzalez’s career high-tying seven walks and frustrating its towel-waving fans.

A standing room crowd of 47,078, among the largest at 7-year-old Busch Stadium, bundled up for a game that began in 54-degree chill and featured kaleidoscope late-afternoon shadows that bedeviled hitters for several innings.

Rookie shortstop Pete Kozma misplayed Michael Morse’s grounder for an error to open the eighth and set up the Nationals’ go-ahead rally. Ian Desmond followed with a single off Mitchell Boggs for his third hit of the game, putting runners at the corners.

Danny Espinsoa sacrificed, leaving runners at second and third, and Kurt Suzuki struck out. In a series of moves, the Nationals sent up Chad Tracy to pinch hit, the Cardinals switched to lefty Marc Rzepczynski and Washington subbed in Moore, who had two of their three pinch homers this season.

Moore poked an outside pitch to right field and both runners scored easily.

Wainwright became the first Cardinals pitcher to reach double digits in strikeouts since Bob Gibson also fanned 10 to beat the Tigers in Game 4 of the 1968 World Series.

Wainwright was a 14-game winner coming off reconstructive elbow surgery that sidelined him all of 2011, with 10 of the wins coming at home. He’s been a postseason ace with a microscopic 0.77 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 23 1-3 innings.

He fanned Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman twice each and seventh-place hitter Espinosa all three times.

Gonzalez allowed just one hit in five innings, on David Freese’s full-count bouncer between third and short to start the fourth. But he had trouble finding catcher Kurt Suzuki’s glove.

The second inning was Gonzalez’ shakiest when he allowed the Cardinals to score twice and take the lead without a hit. Gonzalez walked four of the first five hitters, putting St. Louis in position to score one run on a wild pitch and a second on Jon Jay’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly.

Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth robbed Daniel Descalso of a two-run homer off with a leaping catch to keep it at 2-1 in the sixth. Descalso had a fielding gem of his own in the seventh, ranging far to his left to glove Harper’s grounder and then throwing him out by a few steps.

NOTES: The Cardinals went 0 for 8 with runners in scoring position. ... Garcia was 4-2 with a 2.82 ERA in nine starts at home. The lefty has a 2.48 career ERA at Busch. ... Gonzalez also walked seven on June 11, 2011, when he was with Oakland against the White Sox. ... Kozma committed one error in 26 games after taking over as the regular SS in September for injured Rafael Furcal.