DETROIT -- The A's were about to do the unthinkable, but then the Tigers did it.
Oakland was one out away from handing Detroit its first four-game sweep at Comerica Park since 2004, one out away from closing the book on what would've been just the second loss of the season for Cy Young-probable Max Scherzer.
But then Grant Balfour, having already walked two and surrendered a Victor Martinez RBI single, left a slider up to Torii Hunter, and Hunter clobbered it, walking the Tigers off with a three-run homer.
Oakland's stunning 7-6 defeat at Comerica Park on Thursday increased its deficit behind the idle Rangers in the American League West to three games and narrowed its hold of the second Wild Card spot to 3 1/2 games, with the Wild Card leading Rays coming to Oakland this weekend.
It was just the eighth time in 54 appearances this season that Balfour had given up a run. Just once before had he allowed three in a single outing, never four -- not even in his last 21 outings combined.
But Balfour conceded that he went out to the mound empty-handed.
"I felt terrible today," he said. "I don't know what it was. I had nothing. I didn't have a good fastball. I didn't have a breaking ball. I went out there with nothing, to be honest. I knew that warming up in the 'pen. It's not a good lineup to go out there when you got nothing. You gotta figure out a way. I just kept cutting the ball. I was fighting myself out there."
But even when Balfour boarded leadoff man Austin Jackson on a four-pitch walk, and even when he issued another free pass two outs later, there was limited cause for concern. Balfour, after all, seems to like the drama. He typically thrives on it, having allowed nearly 32 percent of his first batters to reach base this season.
That hasn't stopped him from totaling a career-high 33 saves.
"We've seen him have some saves where he's had to wiggle his way out a little bit," said manager Bob Melvin, "so a couple guys on usually isn't an indication of how he's pitching."
But Balfour knew. Even still, he was one out away. One strike away.
"I made a couple pitches, walked a couple guys, and then I thought, 'I'm gonna bear down right here,' got a tough hitter with Martinez," he said. "To get ahead of him felt good. I had him looking away there, and I came in and thought I made a pretty good pitch, but he fought it and dumps it into center field."
What was left of the A's two-run lead was wiped away three pitches later.
"Hunter, he likes to drive the ball the other way," catcher Stephen Vogt said. "We were going slider away, and he just didn't get it down. Obviously he did what he did."
"I want to get the job done and win four games," Balfour said. "You couldn't ask any more out of anyone. I let us down today, and I'm angry at myself. It's really frustrating, especially when you're one pitch away and you feel like you made a decent pitch, then you go out there and three or four pitches later, you're walking off the field."
No matter, the A's have to feel good about what they did in Detroit, since they essentially made a habit out of destroying a typically dominating Tigers' staff.
"They beat us three times, handily," Scherzer said. "That just shows you how hot they were. That's probably the best baseball I've seen the A's ever play, and that's major kudos to them."
Scherzer was around for just five innings, having previously gone at least six in every start after April 24. The A's knocked him around for a season-high six runs on a season high-tying eight hits, two of them homers. Scherzer had not given up any in his previous six starts.
Rather than letting their often timid lineup be further exposed, the A's outscored the Tigers, 34-20, in the series, beating up on starters Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Scherzer all in a week's work -- mostly by forcing them to labor in the first few innings, particularly the opening one.
Oakland made the vaunted foursome throw a total of 117 pitches in the first inning, including 29 by Scherzer. The right-hander was rattled from the start, giving up a leadoff double to Coco Crisp and a first-pitch homer to Jed Lowrie one out later that gave the A's an early two-run lead they extended to four in the fourth on a pair of sacrifice flies.
Detroit finally got to A's starter Bartolo Colon in the bottom half of the frame by stringing together a pair of hits and notching a sacrifice fly of their own, but that's all the veteran righty would allow spanning five innings in his first start back from the disabled list.
Colon didn't look himself in two starts before suffering a left groin strain, but he did this time around, with his velocity back to normal in the low 90s, and his command in check. He didn't walk a batter and struck out one, scattering seven hits in the outing.
"The velocity was there, his ball had life, good movement when it was down," Vogt said. "He looked much better than the last time, and you can tell he's got his legs under him better. He's driving down the mound better. It's exciting having him back feeling the way he is."
By the time of Colon's departure, the A's had already added to their lead, getting a two-run homer from Brandon Moss in the fifth inning, his fourth of the series and seventh in 10 games, with 14 RBIs in that span.
The Tigers scored two runs off the A's bullpen in the sixth, highlighted by Prince Fielder's leadoff home run against left Jerry Blevins, before storming back in the fateful ninth.
"Obviously this one hurts, but at the same time, went 4-3 on this road trip," said Vogt. "That's a good road trip for us, and the way we're swinging the bats, hopefully we can carry that into a tough series this weekend back home and continue to swing the bats the way we have and pitch the way we have."
Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.