Full talents on display, Anibal Sanchez baffles the Red Sox
BOSTON -- The baseball left Anibal Sanchez's fingertips on 116 voyages of unhittable unpredictability, mostly for the batters but even at times for the catcher and pitcher. The Tigers righthander varied velocity and trajectory on nearly every pitch. His ball cut and sank, curved and slowed, slid across and sped up, but it also sailed and bounced as he struck out 12 Red Sox, walked six and uncorked two wild pitches, the epitome of effective wildness.
"His stuff, at times, is probably some of the nastiest stuff we have on the team," Detroit catcher Alex Avila said. "His ball had so much action on it [that] I don't think even he knew where it was going sometimes, and sometimes I didn't."
Sanchez deprived baseball's best offense of even a single hit for six innings before an excessive pitch count forced him to bequeath the final third of the game to his bullpen. Four relievers preserved the no-hitter until two outs remained in the ninth inning, at which point Boston's Daniel Nava lined a single off closer Joaquin Benoit to center, as the Tigers failed to finish the third postseason no-hitter in baseball history but held on to defeat the Red Sox 1-0 in Game 1 of the ALCS.
"At this point, especially in this series, it's not about throwing a no-hitter," Sanchez said. "[The win] is more important."
Sanchez's repertoire is outrageously difficult to hit, but until this season -- when he won the AL ERA crown with a 2.57 -- his production hadn't consistently matched his stuff, the pure raw materials of a pitcher's arsenal. Fans focus on results, but fellow tradesmen appreciate the process, making Sanchez a true pitcher's pitcher.
The wizardry of Sanchez may only have been matched by the prophecy of two teammates, one already with a Cy Young and the other likely needing to clear mantle room for his work this season. Just one day prior, in fact, Justin Verlander made an impossibly bold assessment of his rotation-mate.
"When he's right," Verlander said of Sanchez, "he's probably the most unhittable guy in baseball."
More than even Verlander himself, owner of two no-hitters, a Cy Young and an MVP, who was less than 24 hours removed from no-hitting the Oakland A's for the first 6 2/3 innings of a winner-take-all ALDS Game 5?
"He can be, yeah," Verlander said. Off the top of his head, he rattled off Sanchez's career line of one no-hitter and four one-hitters.
Max Scherzer's 21 wins, 2.90 ERA and AL-leading WHIP make him a near-lock for this year's Cy Young, yet he too sang Sanchez's praises before Detroit's workout on Friday.
"He changes speeds on every pitch," Scherzer said of Sanchez. "You kind of hear about changing speeds on the fastball, but he changes speeds on his changeup, his slider, everything. That's what makes him so effective. You'll never see the same pitch twice in an at bat. It's fun to watch him pitch because he's so creative."
Against Boston, Sanchez hit nearly every integer from 77 miles per hour on up to 96, missing only 81, 82 and 84 but adding a 68 and a pair of 74s for good measure. He threw 34 pitches that registered 94 mph or higher and 35 that were 86 or slower, leaving 47 pitches in the netherland range of speedy offspeed pitches and slow fastballs. And all of it had movement, too.
In the early innings Detroit's pitching coach Jeff Jones retreated down the dugout tunnel to watch video of his starter -- especially of Sanchez's delivery, which was off-kilter as he struggled in his first-round start against Oakland -- and even Jones, a 36-year veteran of pro ball, was impressed by how much Sanchez's ball was moving.
"He had a 95 mph bowling ball that was sinking pretty good," Red Sox catcher David Ross said. "I thought a pitch was a slider and then I'd look up and see it was 95."
With such variance across the spectrum of speed and movement, the Red Sox regularly and futilely tried to check swings as pitches darted out of the strike zone. They failed to even scratch out a hard-hit out. No-hitters are often aided by at least one great defensive play of preservation, but Detroit's defense wasn't sprung into such service.
Sanchez's start was especially sublime given his competition. He faced a relentless lineup that exceled as much in waging the war of attrition -- not unsuccessfully, mind you, even on this night as Sanchez did exit after six innings -- as it did at scoring runs: 853 of those, the only club to surpass 800 this season.
Even without the completed no-hitter, Sanchez's night was still historic, as it summoned mentions of bygones who were great (Walter Johnson) or had great names (Orval Overall): Johnson was the last pitcher with 12 strikeouts and six walks in a postseason game (he did his over a 12-inning World Series Game 1 loss back in 1924), and facilitated by a first-inning wild pitch, Sanchez matched Overall as the only pitchers with four strikeouts in a postseason inning (Overall did so in the first frame of Game 5 of the 1908 World Series, which just so happened to be the clincher of the Cubs' last championship).
The other history that was made this season belonged to the entire Tigers' pitching staff, which struck out a major league record 1,428 batters over the course of the year. Verlander said the staff was keenly aware of their progress entering the final-weekend series with Miami, thanks to the tracking efforts of trainer Kevin Rand. Sanchez logged the record-breaking strikeout of the Marlins' Chris Coghlan in the first inning of the season's penultimate game, and the club made sure the game ball was rolled into the dugout with the intention of safekeeping, even if the pitchers aren't sure what happened to the ball.
"We were all talking about it [but] we had no idea what to do with the baseball," Verlander said. "We can't chop it up and give it to everybody. I don't know where that baseball went."
"We all gave ourselves a nice little pat on the back and hugged it out and had a nice moment," Scherzer said, "but it was just one stat. We are more interested in how we pitch in the postseason than how we did during the regular season."
That Sanchez was on the mound for the record was fitting, because the biggest change for the Tigers' staff in 2013 was a full season of his services. Detroit acquired him at last year's deadline, along with second baseman Omar Infante for a bevy of prospects. They then re-signed Sanchez as a free agent this winter, inking him to a large contract befitting an ace or at least a near-approximation thereof, a role he dutifully filled in 2013 and especially on Saturday night.
Sanchez, a former Boston farmhand who so idolized Pedro Martinez that he'd drive from minor league outposts across New England to see the former Red Sox wizard, crafted a masterpiece that was at times reminiscent of Martinez himself. Sanchez's six hitless innings, it need be noted, matched the best playoff output of his hero and fulfilled the prescient praise of his teammates.