DETROIT — On a night of desperation, dispute and finally, delirium, Max Scherzer and the Detroit Tigers kept their season alive by the slimmest of margins.
A tying home run, helped along by a couple of fans in right field.
A full-count pitch with the bases loaded that was low and inside but became strike three when the batter swung.
A line drive down the line with the bases still full — foul by a few feet.
During a relief outing to remember, Scherzer escaped a major jam one inning after two fans reached out to try to reel in Victor Martinez’s disputed home run, and the Tigers rallied past the Oakland Athletics 8-6 on Tuesday to force a decisive fifth game in their AL division series.
Scherzer was in line to start Game 5, but the 21-game winner came on Tuesday instead for his first relief appearance since the 2011 postseason. He wriggled out of a bases-loaded, none-out jam in the eighth inning and got the win.
“We took our best shot and we had to because we were behind the 8-ball a little bit,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “We took that shot and, hey, both teams are going to have a good pitcher going two days from now.”
After avoiding elimination, the Tigers can now send Justin Verlander to the mound Thursday night in Oakland. Verlander shut out the A’s at the Coliseum in Game 5 of the division series last year.
Oakland hasn’t announced a starter for Thursday. It is Bartolo Colon’s turn in the postseason rotation, but rookie Sonny Gray could also come back on normal rest after a brilliant performance in Game 2.
“We haven’t decided anything yet,” manager Bob Melvin said.
Playing catch-up most of the way in Game 4, the Tigers tied it first with Jhonny Peralta’s three-run homer in the fifth and then on Martinez’s solo shot in the seventh. A couple of fans attempted to catch Martinez’s drive, and at least one of them bobbled the ball as he reached over the railing above the wall.
That prevented right fielder Josh Reddick from having any chance at a leaping grab. Reddick and center fielder Coco Crisp immediately protested, pointing up at the stands in the hope of a fan-interference call. But umpires upheld the home run after a replay review.
“I have no doubt I was going to catch that ball. When I looked at the replay, that’s what I thought,” Reddick said. “It’s totally frustrating that a fan can influence the game.”
Gary Darling, the crew chief, was umpiring in right field. He disagreed, even after the replay.
“It was clear he was not going to catch the ball, so it was clearly going to be a home run,” Darling said. “There wasn’t any other evidence on replay to turn it another way.”
Scherzer came out of the bullpen in the seventh and gave up a run, then ran into trouble again in the eighth. With the Tigers ahead 5-4, he allowed a walk and a double to start the inning. But after an intentional walk to load the bases, Leyland left his ace on the mound.
Scherzer struck out Reddick, who swung and missed at what would have been ball four on a low, inside pitch. Stephen Vogt struck out too, but pinch-hitter Alberto Callaspo’s line drive to left nearly fell in before landing foul.
Callaspo eventually lined out to center.
“It was surreal,” said Scherzer, the winning pitcher in both Detroit victories this series. “Maybe it’s not the ninth inning, but that’s the stuff you dream about pitching — bases loaded, eighth inning, no outs, and I was able to do it.”
Detroit, held hitless through four innings in a game of twists and turns, added three runs in the eighth on a wild pitch and a two-run double by Omar Infante that made it 8-4.
Yoenis Cespedes hit a two-run single in the ninth, bringing the potential tying run to the plate, but Joaquin Benoit struck out Seth Smith to end it.
Crisp had four hits and three runs for the A’s, who led 3-0 and 4-3 but couldn’t close out the defending American League champions. The Oakland bullpen hadn’t allowed a run all series until Tuesday.
After Crisp put the A’s ahead 4-3 with an RBI single off Scherzer in the seventh, Martinez lifted a fly to right against reliever Sean Doolittle. It would have been an extremely difficult catch for Reddick, and it looked as though the ball might have cleared the wall even without the fans’ involvement.
It was certainly an anxious wait while umpires reviewed the play, which brought back memories of Derek Jeter’s fan-aided homer against Baltimore in the 1996 AL championship series at Yankee Stadium.
Peralta followed with a double, and Austin Jackson — who was 1 for 14 with 10 strikeouts in the series to that point — managed a broken-bat single to put the Tigers ahead 5-4.
It appeared Detroit was in big trouble in the eighth, but Scherzer was able to protect the one-run lead, and the Tigers eventually added to it.
Detroit starter Doug Fister allowed three runs and seven hits in six innings before being relieved by Scherzer, who came back on three days’ rest after his victory in Game 1.
Oakland took the series lead with a win in Game 3, and Crisp’s leadoff triple Tuesday put the Tigers on their heels again. Detroit brought the infield in — a sign that even one run could be vital — and Crisp scored on Jed Lowrie’s one-out single, putting immediate pressure on the Tigers’ slumbering offense.
It appeared the Athletics were on their way to the ALCS when Lowrie’s two-run homer in the fifth gave Oakland a three-run lead. With slugger Miguel Cabrera still hobbled by injuries, A’s rookie Dan Straily held the Tigers hitless until the fifth.
But after a bloop single by Prince Fielder, Martinez grounded a base hit to right. Peralta, who moved from shortstop to left field after returning from his late-season drug suspension, lined one over the wall in left, finally bringing the Comerica Park fans to life.
NOTES: Cabrera hit a sixth-inning single. He’s reached base safely in all 28 of his postseason games with the Tigers. … Detroit had gone seven games without a homer. … Peralta’s homer was the first extra-base hit allowed by Straily since Sept. 7, according to STATS.