OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Jose Valverde sat at his locker in disbelief, head down and elbows on his knees. His Tigers teammates ate in stunned silence.
Valverde, Detroit’s demonstrative closer who saved all 49 of his chances last year, blew the save with his team on the cusp of a second straight trip to the AL championship series and the Oakland Athletics rallied once more to force a Game 5 in their AL division series with a 4-3 win Wednesday night.
“We all have his back,” catcher Gerald Laird said of Valverde. “There’s not one guy we blame on this team.”
Coco Crisp lined a game-ending single to right field with two outs in the ninth as the A’s found one more furious rally to stay alive for another day.
Valverde called it the toughest moment yet in his stellar career. The 34-year-old pitcher is wrapping up his three-year contract with the Tigers.
After Josh Reddick hit a leadoff single and Josh Donaldson doubled, Valverde surrendered a game-tying two-run double to Seth Smith and later Crisp’s big hit.
“I threw all my pitches,” Valverde said. “You’ve got to give credit to the guys over there. You make one mistake, that’s it. There’s nothing I can do. It’s over.”
Al Alburquerque patted him on the behind. Justin Verlander, who will pitch the deciding game Thursday night, offered his support of Valverde along with most everyone else in the room.
“It’s extremely hard to hit a baseball,” catcher Alex Avila said. “So, the credit’s always going to go to the hitters. It has to. He did have a good fastball. That inning they just took advantage of the one or two mistakes Valverde made. He’s been here for a while. We know what he’s capable of. You’ve got to forget about, like I’m sure he does. He’s got a closer’s mentality. He’s been doing it for a long time.”
Valverde has long been manager Jim Leyland’s reliable ninth-inning man — and he so hopes to get the ball again Thursday night. Valverde earned his fourth postseason save in Saturday’s 3-1 Game 1 win, then missed a chance to become the franchise’s postseason saves leader. He currently shares that distinction with Willie Hernandez and Todd Jones.
Leyland found himself defending Valverde a day earlier, saying it would be tough for the hard-throwing right-hander not to go downhill after his remarkable run in 2011.
“He’s our guy, and that’s just the way it is,” Leyland said afterward. “Certainly I feel comfortable with Jose coming in in that situation. Tonight he just didn’t get the job done.”
Valverde finished sixth in the American League with 35 saves this season, but still leads the AL with 110 saves since the beginning of 2010.
“When we lose a game like this and I need three outs for my team to clinch, it hurts,” Valverde said. “This is the toughest moment in my whole career. I had everything. These guys hit it. There’s nothing I can do.”
Now, the Tigers will turn the ball over to their ace and Game 1 winner to lead them in Game 5. Verlander, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner and MVP, struck out 11 batters in the series opener at Comerica Park.
“Valverde’s been great for us. Those things happen,” Verlander said. “Obviously you don’t want them to happen on a night like tonight. It did.”