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Senior Baseball Columnist

Athletics' rally in ninth caps momentous day of never-say-die baseball

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Coco Crisp's heroics and the Athletics' remarkable season have been refreshing, to say the least. (Getty Images)  
Coco Crisp's heroics and the Athletics' remarkable season have been refreshing, to say the least. (Getty Images)  

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Somewhere, someone is sitting with a beatific grin on his (or her) face, ink well just about dried up, paper supply just about exhausted.

Who knows where these storylines come from? Who can believe them? Just the other day, spitting mad over Detroit reliever Al Alburquerque kissing a baseball, Oakland outfielder Jonny Gomes was testifying as to his belief in the baseball gods. Maybe he's on to something. Maybe that really is where this stuff is coming from.

Can the A's get an Amen?

Oh my Lord, hearts are thumping and the adrenalin is pumping all over the hardball world today, from coast to coast, from sea to shining sea. Humbabe, take two and hit to right.

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Who wins World Series?

If you weren't moved by the Giants storming back to force a Game 5 in Cincinnati earlier Wednesday ... if you were too soulless to pay attention to the great Alex Rodriguez being removed for a pinch-hitter who walloped not one but two home runs to deliver the Yankees a for-the-ages triumph over the Orioles in the Bronx ... if all of that still didn't rock your world. ...

There was Coco Crisp at the end of this thrilling and exhausting day of baseball, shaving cream pie mashed in his face, Gatorade jug dumped over his head, another incredible 4-3 comeback win over the Tigers in the books and Game 5 straight ahead.

Tigers ace Justin Verlander lined up against Oakland's Kid Sensation Jarrod Parker on Thursday night -- let's go.

"This is just what it's about, playoff baseball," said Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson, whose ninth-inning double helped ignite the Athletics' astounding 15th walkoff victory of the season. "This is when the big boys come out. It's their time to shine."

Donaldson is only 26, and a converted catcher. He moved to third base only when Scott Sizemore was lost for the season to a knee injury about, oh, five minutes after spring training started.

What could he possibly know about the big boys?

"I always heard growing up that big-time players come up big in big-time situations," Donaldson said.

The kid is a quick study.

From Tim Lincecum's spot-on relief work in Cincinnati to Raul Ibanez's two long balls in the Bronx to a ninth inning here that started with Oakland trailing 3-1 and ended with the Athletics mugging Tigers closer Jose Valverde, big boys were shining everywhere.

Seth Smith's two-run, game-tying double was the third consecutive hit to greet Valverde to start the ninth. Then, after the Tigers closer finally coaxed two outs, Crisp, the Game 4 hero, punched a game-winning single into right field.

"Beautiful," A's hitting coach Chili Davis said. "Good guy to beat. It's fun beating a closer. They're the best at what they do. When you get them on the line, it's fun beating them.

"Because they're supposed to beat you."

That's how it was set up. For eight innings, Max Scherzer and a parade of relievers mostly silenced the A's.

From his office overlooking first base, Prince Fielder pretty much was thinking what every Tiger must have thought.

"I thought we had a good shot," Fielder said.

All of the clinching mechanics were in progress: protective plastic hung over the Tigers lockers, champagne on ice, RSVPs for the AL Championship Series practically stamped and in the mailbox.

Then, for the Tigers, everything cut to black.

"There's nothing I can do," Valverde said in a cemetery-quiet Tigers clubhouse. "It's over. Go to sleep and take it tomorrow."

He added: "It's tough."

Manager Jim Leyland had made a pass through just before Valverde turned to speak with reporters. The old manager patted the dejected closer on the back once, twice ... a few times.

"It's hard," Valverde said.

Valverde said he thought his fastball was OK. He wasn't all that displeased with his command. The A's, he said, just hit the ball. It happens.

"It's baseball," Leyland said. "I mean, that's why this is the greatest game of all.

"It looked like we were going to get it. We didn't do it. We didn't quite get the 27 outs. That's part of the game.

"You get tested all the time in this game. And this is a good test. We're down to like the wild-card situation was -- one game, pretty simple. I thought we played our hearts out. Tonight, we just didn't close it out."

Silver lining in Tigertown, of course, is that Verlander is rested and raring to go in what is guaranteed to be a wild and raucous Game 5.

"This team's been resilient, and we allowed ourselves to be in this position," Verlander said. "We won the first two games at home. You know it's not easy to play here. So we put ourselves in position to where we just need to win one. Whatever that game is, it doesn't matter. So hopefully, it's the fifth one."

Verlander figures Game 5 will be a lot like Game 1, without the margin for error.

"I feel like it's about the same as the responsibility in Game 1," he said. "Obviously, it's win or go home. But it's the same feeling for Game 1."

The Athletics have had pretty much the same feeling for the past two months, no matter how bleak their situation looked at times.

"It's unexplainable," Donaldson said. "I don't think anybody who's not a part of this team would believe what's going on. The amount of confidence that this team has in each other to come through in key times when our season is on the line. ...

"Right there, we have everything to lose. They didn't beat themselves. We went out and took it."

In the Tigers clubhouse, mounds of plastic were quickly ripped down and stashed in clubhouse manager Mike Thalblum's office, looking something like a cross between a mountain and a dumpster. The symbolism was not hard to read: By this time Thursday night, one of these teams will ascend to the ALCS, and the other's season will be unsympathetically tossed into the trash.

What a day. What a night. Ecstasy, agony, geography ... hold on tight to your television remotes on Thursday, because so many roller coasters right now are hurtling toward the end.

Here in Oakland, the Tigers must scrape themselves from the emotional depths, and quick.

"No," Fielder said when I asked him whether there is even a tiny bit of him that can appreciate what the A's are continuing to do. "I don't care about their season."

In the other clubhouse ...

"I don't think anybody wants it to end, for both sides," Crisp said. "You want to keep on playing as long as you possibly can."

At this point, who among us doesn't want to keep watching as long as we possibly can?

As Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley tweeted late Wednesday night: "This is once in a lifetime stuff. Magic. Stars lining up for #athletics. Game 5 is going to be incredible."

Or, as Donaldson succinctly explained, "This is a little boy's dream."

Amen, and we'll see you on Thursday night.

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