Closing Time: No no-no, but Anibal Sanchez, Tigers dominate Red Sox en route to 1-0 Game 1 victory

October 12, 2013 - 8:08 pm

The Red Sox were dominated in virtually unprecedented fashion, as former Sox farmhand Anibal Sanchez and four relievers (Al Alburquerque, Jose Veras, Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit) combined to carry a no-hitter into the ninth inning before ultimately settling for a nail-biting one-hitter that propelled the Tigers to a 1-0 victory over the Sox in Game 1 of the best-of-seven American League Championship Series. Sanchez tossed six no-hit innings with stuff that was simply overwhelming from the first inning, when he became the second pitcher in postseason history to strike out four batters in an inning (the other instance having come 105 years earlier, when Orval Overall of the Cubs accomplished the feat in the 1908 World Series), working around a one-out wild pitch on a swinging third strike to Shane Victorino (and a subsequent walk to Dustin Pedroia) by punching out both David Ortiz and Mike Napoli. (Sanchez had already struck out Jacoby Ellsbury leading off the first.) Though Sanchez struggled at times to keep his stuff in the strike zone, resulting in six walks against a Sox team that couldn't really put the ball in play against him, he kept working his way out of harm with key punchouts on the strength of a fastball that ran from 93-97 mph, a killer slider that resulted in numerous check swings and a changeup that he employed cleverly against both righties and lefties. The result? One of the most unhittable postseason efforts ever, six no-hit innings (requiring 116 pitches -- hence the exit after six frames) in which the Sox went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position in the few instances when Sanchez's wildness permitted them to put a runner on base. A quartet of Detroit relievers recorded the next seven outs without permitting a hit, before Daniel Nava finally punctuated a one-out, seven-pitch at-bat in the ninth by punching a single to left-center off Detroit closer Benoit. Still, the Sox were unable to capitalize on the hit (or on pinch-runner Quintin Berry's two-out steal of second), as Stephen Drew's flyout to deep right faded just shy of the warning track and Xander Bogaerts skied a full-count changeup for the final out. Sanchez, the Detroit starter and former Red Sox prospect, got the only run of support he'd need in the sixth, when Detroit scratched out a single run against Sox starter Jon Lester, on a night when the left-hander was little short of brilliant. A one-out walk to Miguel Cabrera followed by a fastball that terminated in Prince Fielder's ribs put runners on first and second. That preceded what proved to be a pivotal moment, when Victor Martinez dribbled a slow grounder to short. Stephen Drew charged and fired the ball to second, but Dustin Pedroia's relay to first arrived in Mike Napoli's glove a fraction of a second after Martinez had crossed the bag. (Jon Lester would disagree with the call, eventually yelling at first base ump Rob Drake, but replays offered evidence of the verdict's accuracy.) The inning thus sustained, Jhonny Peralta stayed on a 2-2 curveball and dumped it into center for a run-scoring single that proved the only run the Tigers would need. The Sox struck out 17 times, tying a record for the most in a nine-inning postseason game, a standard previously established by the 1998 Astros against the Padres and the 1968 Tigers against the Cardinals. They came within two outs of being the third team ever to be no-hit. The Sox must now look to see if they can kick their offense into gear against Max Scherzer, the likely AL Cy Young winner this year, in Game 2 of the ALCS or else face the possibility of traveling to Detroit down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series. WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE RED SOX -- Too much Sanchez. His 12 strikeouts were the most ever recorded by a starter against the Sox in a playoff game. The only pitchers in postseason history to throw more than Sanchez's six no-hit innings were Don Larsen in his 1956 perfect game in the World Series and Roy Halladay in his 2010 ALDS no-hitter for the Phillies against the Reds. His four-punchout inning marked the fourth time that the Sox had been thusly victimized. The previous three instances: Senators legend Walter Johnson punched out four Sox in 1911, Mariners lefty Matt Young pulled the trick in 1990 and Indians right-hander Justin Masterson accomplished the feat in 2011. Just one Sox pitcher -- Tim Wakefield in 1999 -- has had a four-punchout inning. -- The Sox had one hit, which means that everyone fared poorly. Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli each punched out three times, while David Ortiz, Daniel Nava and Stephen Drew each punched out twice. -- Home plate ump Joe West drew a significant amount of grief from the Sox, who felt throughout the night that his strike zone was unpredictable, with Sanchez and the Tigers getting called strikes on a number of pitches that were of the borderline variety. WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RED SOX -- Though Lester took the loss, he was mostly brilliant. He came out of the gate in the first with overpowering stuff, a fastball that touched 97 mph and a cutter that ran as high as 93. His fastball/cutter/curve combination proved sufficient to dominate the Tigers through the early innings, and permitted him to escape a first-and-third, one-out rally in the fifth. He gave up just six hits (five singles and a double) in his 6 1/3 innings of work, permitting just the one run while punching out four, walking one and eliciting 10 groundball outs. On virtually any other night, his performance would have been deemed little short of extraordinary, another chapter in the career of a pitcher whose postseason ERA now sits at 2.24 in eight starts. -- Mike Napoli made what seemed at the time like a game-changing defensive play in the top of the fifth inning. After a leadoff double by Jhonny Peralta, Napoli -- playing in to prevent a bunt -- snared a hard grounder from Omar Infante and fired to second to catch Peralta, who had strayed too far from the bag. That play proved immense when Alex Avila followed the play with a single to right -- which almost certainly would have scored Peralta, particularly given that right fielder Shane Victorino kicked the ball for an error. With Napoli's play, Infante advanced only as far as third, and he was cut down at the plate when Jose Iglesias grounded into a fielder's choice to third baseman Will Middlebrooks.