BOSTON — No-hitters are supposed to be beautiful, works of art that could be used in videos, be they instructional or inspirational. During the regular season, they could come along on any night from almost any pitcher, and their authors – Hall of Famers and has-beens and everyone in between – cherish them for eternity. They can define careers.
When Anibal Sanchez took the mound Saturday night for the Detroit Tigers in the first game of the American League Championship Series, he had such a moment already, albeit seven years ago, when he was with the Florida Marlins. In no way was it like what he experienced Saturday. Not the stakes. Not the artistry. Not the downright oddity.
Sanchez pursued the third no-hitter in postseason history against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, but because of his own inefficient effectiveness, he needed help to do it. The part that matters as this best-of-seven series moves forward: He helped the Tigers to a 1-0 victory in Game 1 with six powerful frames that brought all kinds of action, if no Boston hits.
“I wasn’t really worried about a no-hitter,” Detroit Manager Jim Leyland said. “Would’ve been nice, been several guys involved. But it works out fine for us.”
Such a blasé assessment of a historic pursuit somehow fit. As the late innings arrived, a two-fold tension built up in the Fenway stands. Would the Red Sox, who led all of baseball in almost every meaningful offensive category, get a hit? They didn’t in the seventh, nor in the eighth. And – oh, yeah – could they scratch out a run and tie this game?
Red Sox left fielder Daniel Nava answered the first question with one out in the ninth inning against Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit, Leyland’s fourth reliever. Nava fouled off three straight two-strike pitches, then rapped a clean single to center. But oddly, it didn’t even provide Boston’s best threat of the night. Not close.
Check out this line, because you may never see it again, be it April or October: six innings pitched, no hits, no runs, six walks, 12 strikeouts, two wild pitches. Mastery or mystery, it was what Detroit needed from Sanchez, a former Red Sox farmhand.
“At this point, especially in this series, it’s not about throwing a no-hitter or something,” Sanchez said. “As soon as you get some zeroes inning by inning, and you face hitter by hitter and get some outs, it’s more important. I think the win is more important than a no-hitter at this point.”
Jhonny Peralta had three hits, including the two-out single in the sixth that provided the Tigers the only run they’d need, and Detroit struck out 17 Boston batters. Sanchez had swing-and-miss stuff, but he wasn’t his sharpest – he threw one pitch to Red Sox shortstop Stephen Drew clear to the backstop – and labored at times. But the sometimes shaky Tigers bullpen backed him up with three scoreless innings, even if it couldn’t preserve the no-hitter.
“Whether it was Sanchez or every guy that they brought out of the bullpen, it was power stuff,” Boston Manager John Farrell said. “They executed very well.”
How would this have been categorized had they pulled it off? Sanchez’s first inning looked a mess. Shane Victorino, the second man he faced, swung at a pitch in the dirt for strike three, but the ball skipped away and Victorino took first. Dustin Pedroia drew a walk, and the Red Sox seemed to have an immediate and legitimate threat against a shaky and shaken pitcher.
But Sanchez got a key out, and a key call, when Boston designated hitter David Ortiz checked his swing on a low 3-2 slider. As Ortiz made the move toward first, third base umpire Alfonso Marquez rung him up. It led to an evening-long theme: Boston’s disgust with the umpiring, led by home plate ump Joe West.
“I can’t say there was an issue with the umpiring,” Farrell said. “That’d be taking away from the talent that their pitching staff has.”
When Sanchez followed by striking out Mike Napoli, he matched the record for strikeouts in a postseason inning with four, a mark set by the esteemed and revered Orval Overall of the 1908 Chicago Cubs. But he walked two in the second, and needed 51 pitches to get through those two frames.
“I thought he was a little careful early,” Leyland said.
He had to be, given that he faced Boston’s lineup and Boston lefty Jon Lester, who danced in and out of trouble early on. That, though, is a tough approach against the middle of the Tigers’ lineup, a scary place for any opposing pitcher to roam. With one out in the sixth, Miguel Cabrera walked, and Lester then plunked Prince Fielder with a sinker. The Tigers had a threat. After a fielder’s choice put runners at the corners, Peralta served a 2-2 curveball into center, and Cabrera trotted home with the Tigers’ run.
Now, to make it stand up – no-hitter or not. Sanchez seemed determined to both grant the Red Sox opportunities and shut them down. The sixth featured his fourth, fifth and sixth walks, loading the bases. But Sanchez capped his night by unleashing his 116th pitch, a 1-2 slider in the dirt. Drew couldn’t touch it, and Sanchez performed something of a fist-pumping pirouette as he left the mound, his final act.
“As soon as he told me that my job is done, I said, ‘Yeah,’ ” Sanchez said. “I threw a lot of pitches. I don’t want to rush back just because we have a no-hitter. I think they need to bring in some fresh arms.”
They did that, and by the scantest margin, they didn’t complete the no-hitter. But it didn’t matter, because whatever bizarreness transpired Saturday night at Fenway, this much is undeniable: The Red Sox head to Game 2 still searching for their first run, and the Tigers lead the series.