BOSTON -- Anibal Sanchez's fellow Detroit Tigers are quick to point out that he's no mere sidekick to the Justin Verlander-Max Scherzer top-of-the-rotation juggernaut. He's a true craftsman with natural movement on his pitches and the ability to do special things on any given day.
The Tigers know pitching, and they're not paying Sanchez $80 million over five years because he has a mellifluous-sounding name.
"Without a doubt, he has No. 1 stuff,'' Detroit catcher Alex Avila said. "At times it's some of the nastiest stuff on the team, and today was definitely one of those nights for him. His ball had so much action on it, I don't think even he knew where it was going sometimes.''
Finishing with 12 strikeouts and six walks, Sanchez fell victim to pitch-count mathematics Saturday night, piling up 116 pitches over six innings before leaving the game and playing spectator from the dugout. But he nearly combined with the Detroit bullpen to make history. For 8 1/3 innings, the vaunted Boston lineup failed to produce a single hit against the Tigers. Daniel Nava helped the Sox salvage their dignity by dumping a single to center field against Detroit closer Joaquin Benoit with one out in the ninth. But the Red Sox were thoroughly and completely dominated while striking out 17 times in a 1-0 loss to Detroit in the American League Championship Series opener.
Prognosticators who picked the Tigers to advance to the World Series for the second straight year generally did so because of their dominant starting pitching, and a performance like the one Sanchez recorded in Game 1 makes Jim Leyland's team look downright scary. The Oakland A's gave Detroit a major scare in the Division Series by holding their own against Sanchez and Doug Fister, only to fall victim to the Verlander-Scherzer combo.
After flailing against Sanchez, the Red Sox now face a daunting challenge. In 43 previous ALCS matchups, the victorious team in Game 1 has gone on to win 27 times, or 63 percent of the time. If the Red Sox plan to buck that trend, they're going to have to beat the 2013 Cy Young Award favorite (Scherzer) or the 2011 Cy Young winner and American League MVP (Verlander) if they don't want to find themselves in a whopping hole.
The Red Sox's approach against the Tigers -- against everyone, really -- is to exercise patience at the plate, foul off pitches ad nauseam, drive starters from the game by the fifth, sixth or seventh and then beat up on defenseless middle relievers. That collective team mindset helped Boston lead the majors with 853 runs, 363 doubles and a .795 OPS this season.
The danger of working deep counts is that some opposing staffs are more adept than others at sealing the deal. The Detroit staff led the majors with 1,428 strikeouts during the regular season. The Boston offense finished with 1,308 strikeouts, eighth-highest total in the game. If the Red Sox don't take a more aggressive approach and try to put the ball in play more quickly in Games 2 and 3 against Scher-lander, they run the risk of spending a lot of time lugging the lumber back to the dugout.
Sanchez, admittedly, had some extra motivation in this start. He broke into pro ball with the Red Sox organization as a 16-year-old free agent out of his native Venezuela in 2001. He pitched on the same Double-A Portland Sea Dogs team in 2005 with Jon Lester, his ALCS Game 1 opponent, before the Red Sox packed him off to Florida with a young shortstop named Hanley Ramirez in a deal for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell.
Sanchez led the American League with a 2.57 ERA this season, but he was coming off one of his least impressive outings of the season. In a 6-3 loss to Oakland in the Division Series, he lacked his usual fastball command and the bite on his secondary pitches and allowed three home runs. The beating prompted him to tinker with his mechanics in a side session -- a risky proposition this late in the season.
"You have to do that, no matter what part of the season you're in,'' Sanchez said. "But it's not easy when you make changes between starts.''
What Sanchez lacked in precision against Boston, he made up for with movement. In the first inning, he threw a total of 13 strikes and struck out four batters thanks to a wild pitch that allowed Shane Victorino to reach base. He achieved a slice of baseball trivia by joining Orval Overall of the 1908 Chicago Cubs as the second pitcher to whiff four batters in one inning in the postseason.
The Boston hitters grew increasingly more frustrated and testy as the game progressed. David Ortiz showed his exasperation after two straight attempted check swings went against him in the first inning. Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino also appeared none too thrilled with home plate umpire Joe West and the Game 1 crew.
Sanchez played with the Boston hitters' heads by going against the scouting report on several occasions.
"One of the things that makes him so good is that he's very unpredictable,'' Avila said. "He throws stuff in counts where hitters normally wouldn't see it to keep them off-balance. He has the type of command where he can do that. There were at-bats tonight where I don't think they were thinking about 2-1 sliders with two guys on base or 3-1 changeups. It makes it a little tougher on a hitter.''
Leyland made a pivotal decision to let Sanchez pitch to Stephen Drew with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, because he didn't want to bring in lefty reliever Drew Smyly and have Boston manager John Farrell counter with Jonny Gomes. Sanchez summoned everything he had left in the tank. He punched out Drew for his 12th and final strikeout of the evening, and pumped his fist in triumph on his way off the mound.
Dual plot lines were intersecting as the game wound toward a conclusion. The Tigers were desperately trying to maintain their one-run lead, while simultaneously aware that they had a staff no-hitter in progress. Al Alburquerque handed the baton to Jose Veras, who passed it to Smyly, who kept the no-no intact through the eighth. Benoit gave up the single to Nava, but retired Xander Bogaerts on a pop fly to end it with pinch runner Quintin Berry standing on second base.
On a strange night at Fenway, the Tigers actually wondered about the etiquette of the thing: If Benoit had sealed the deal and allowed the Tigers to join the 1956 New York Yankees (Don Larsen) and the 2010 Philadelphia Phillies (Roy Halladay) as the third team to record a postseason no-hitter, how exuberantly should they respond?
"Obviously, you can't say this in the heat of the game because you would be mentioning the no-hitter in a way, but I was thinking, 'If we do no-hit these guys, do we even go out on the field to celebrate?''' Verlander said. "I don't think that's right. I think we win the baseball game, we go out there and slap hands and come back in. That sounds crazy. Yeah, no-hitters are great in the regular season and they're exciting for you and us as well, but there are much bigger things going on here.''
Finally, consider this: On Saturday afternoon, Michael Wacha and the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 1-0 to go up two games to none in the National League Championship Series. And Saturday night, in a game that took a hair under four hours to complete, the Tigers matched that achievement.
"One-zip -- that's crazy,'' Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter said. "That's a playoff game. I've been to seven postseasons now, and pitching and defense always win games. Offense ain't nothing.''
Sanchez, just a garden-variety ERA champion, made that readily apparent in Game 1. Now the Tigers are hoping that Scherzer and Verlander can follow his lead. Who could have envisioned that?