October 12, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Anibal Sanchez, Tigers bullpen make the Red Sox go down swinging - and missing

Boston — It was striking, stunning and almost ridiculous in its simplicity. It didn’t take long for the Tigers to show what they do, and for the Red Sox to recognize what they’re up against.

Anibal Sanchez started it and the Tigers nearly completed a remarkable slice of history in their 1-0 victory Saturday night in the ALCS opener. They didn’t allow a hit by the mighty Red Sox until one out in the ninth, when Daniel Nava lashed a liner off Joaquin Benoit. A collection of five pitchers kept wringing (and ringing up) the Red Sox, and hey, it’s not a bad formula — if your own offense is low on hits and runs, don’t let the other guys get any.

Sanchez had 12 strikeouts and Tigers pitchers piled up 17, the most against the Red Sox in the postseason. There’s never been a playoff game like this at Fenway Park, and as series-opening statements go, it was profound. Sanchez, Al Alburquerque, Jose Veras, Drew Smyly and Benoit reduced the Red Sox to a bearded band of angry swinging nuisances, and left the crowd in an ugly mood.

Fans ranted and players barked at home-plate umpire Joe West, and he certainly had no problem calling strikes. Tigers pitchers also have no problem throwing them — they set a major-league record in strikeouts this season. They knocked the Red Sox so far off balance, it was a comical parade of checked and not-quite-checked swings. It’s not very complicated these days: The Tigers throw the ball and try to get the other team to miss it.

Sanchez did it to dizzying, dazzling effect. And if the Tigers are to prevail in the ALCS, this is how they must do it, their starters frustrating a potent offense into flailing. It’s what Justin Verlander did to the A’s in the ALDS clincher with a shutout performance, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning. It’s what Max Scherzer hopes to do in Game 2 tonight, which suddenly becomes a huge test for the Red Sox.

Rebounding from a loss

The Tigers had the answers on this night. Sanchez only made it through six innings because while he was dominant, he was wildly dominant. He walked six and threw 116 pitches, and in the playoffs, any notion of a no-hitter is completely incidental to the outcome. Jim Leyland couldn’t mess around with a tiring Sanchez, although the real weary ones had to be the Red Sox hitters, er, swingers.

Sanchez doesn’t get the acclaim of Scherzer and Verlander, but he did lead the A.L. in ERA and is a renowned strikeout artist.

“At times, (Sanchez) probably has some of the nastiest stuff on the team, and this was definitely one of those nights,” catcher Alex Avila said. “His ball had so much action on it, I don’t even think he knew where it was going sometimes. And sometimes, I didn’t. That’s what makes him so good — he’s very unpredictable; he throws stuff in counts a hitter wouldn’t normally see, just to keep them off balance.”

It was a huge bounce-back for Sanchez, who gave up three home runs and was rocked by the A’s in his last start. He said he adjusted his mechanics slightly and knew he had to be aggressive against the aggressive Red Sox. His purposeful approach was evident from the start, when he struck out four batters in the first inning. That oddity was possible because Shane Victorino reached first after striking out on a wild pitch.

Boston led the league in runs and pounded the ball in its ALDS victory over Tampa Bay, but hit almost nothing hard against Sanchez. The key moment came in the sixth, when Sanchez walked the bases loaded with two outs and Leyland stuck with him. Gutsy call, gutsy response.

Sanchez struck out Stephen Drew and capped it with a fist pump, practically twisting himself into the ground. It was an emphatic finish to an astounding effort, and it was nearly trumped by the Tigers’ bullpen, which started churning in the seventh and never let up.

“(Leyland) told me my job was done, and I said, yeah,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t want to rush back just because we got a no-hitter. I think they needed to bring some fresh arms to get some innings quickly.”

Just win, baby

In a 1-0 game with the Green Monster looming in left, it never really was about the no-hitter. Well, at least not until the ninth, when it actually seemed possible. Nava’s clean single to left-centerfield broke it up, but it didn’t change much. The Tigers send the presumptive Cy Young winner Scherzer to the mound tonight and his plan will be the same, to induce swings that miss.

At times in this one, the Red Sox looked befuddled. Manager John Farrell argued between innings with West, and the ump’s strike zone was large, although it appeared that way for both teams.

“I can’t say there was an issue with the umpiring — that would be taking away from the talent that their pitching staff had,” Farrell said. “They had power stuff and they executed very well. But there might have been a couple of pitchers’ pitches that seemed to go against us.”

Leyland said he wasn’t focused on the no-hit bid and I can understand why. He sees them all the time, including Verlander’s outing just two nights ago. Everyone knows the Tigers have a uniquely gifted pitching rotation, but this? This was special and nearly historic, and they hope the start of something even bigger.


Tigers right-hander Anibal Sanchez had 12 of the team's 17 strikeouts in Saturday night's victory over the Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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