Detroit — The Tigers have had more than their fair share of quality postseason victories over the last few seasons, including back-to-back-to-back Division Series-clinching games on the road.
But, man, it’s so hard to imagine anything tops what went down at Fenway Park in Boston on Saturday night — a 1-0, one-hit thrill ride that had more nerve-wracking moments than probably are healthy for a legion of Tigers fans.
Here’s one look back at one special evening.
News: Anibal Sanchez was wild, and then dominant, and then wild, and then dominant. Rinse, and repeat. Rinse, and repeat.
Views: And this, folks, is the Tigers’ No. 3 starting pitcher.
Of course, Sanchez is that in name only — and he’s certainly not looked at as such in that clubhouse, which more than knows the value of a man who opened some eyes this offseason after the Tigers’ handed him an $80 million payday.
You could tell early on this wasn’t the Sanchez that, oddly, was off his game during his ALDS clunker against the A’s. This was a guy who brought to Boston his full arsenal of pitches — and make no mistake, it’s a deep bag of tricks from this guy, who, all night long, had the Red Sox guessing, and guessing miserably wrong.
He walked six, sure. He also was as nasty as can be. Forget the Red Sox hitters who couldn’t touch him. His own catcher, Alex Avila, didn’t look like he could catch him.
Avila allowed one sick pitch to go five-hole during the first inning, allowing Sanchez the unthinkable — a four-strikeout frame. Later on, Avila couldn’t handle a fastball — right down the middle.
Sanchez brought the complete package, from a dialed-up fastball to a Bugs Bunny change piece. He also brought one other weapon: His makeup. In trouble way more than a guy twirling a no-hitter should be in, and a raucous Boston crowd breathing down his neck, the right-hander didn’t buckle, but rather buckled the Red Sox‘s knees.
It speaks to the man’s makeup, which the Tigers were well aware of when they traded for him last summer — then made him a very rich man over the winter.
The Tigers are known around baseball as the team with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer — or Scherlander as one ESPN Radio host mistakenly referred to them.
Then another host added to the earlier Freudian Slip, amending it to: Anibal Scherlander.
The Tigers just won a grueling first-round series against the A’s, a series that went five games, in which they were forced to pitch Scherzer and Verlander in Games 1 and 2 just to move on. So while the Red Sox closed out the Rays early and were able to set up their rotation to start their ace, Jon Lester, the Tigers had no choice but to start Sanchez.
Some problem, eh?
“Their No. 3,” ESPN’s Manny Acta said on air after the game, “which happened to be the guy that led the league in ERA (2.57). That speaks very loud of their pitching staff.”
News: Sanchez will steal the headlines, but the Tigers bullpen — a point of serious contention much of the year — sure held up its end of the bargain, too.
Views: No walks.
That’s all you need to know about the effort, Saturday night from, first, Al Alburquerque, then Jose Veras (where’s he been?), then Drew Smyly, and finally Joaquin Benoit.
What that tells me is this: The Tigers relievers weren’t hung up on the no-hitter, which would’ve been awesome to be a part of — but far from what mattered most.
This team has hauled its fair share of individual honors in recent years. Justin Verlander won an MVP and Cy Young. Miguel Cabrera won an MVP. Max Scherzer is about to claim the Cy Young, and Cabrera another MVP.
All fine and dandy, but this team hasn’t done what it’s been assembled to do: win the franchise’s first World Series since 1984.
That’s the goal. And you got the sense the relievers, to a man, understood it.
They weren’t thinking about a no-hitter. If they were, they would’ve been cautious, they would’ve nibbled. You saw none of that. What you saw were four Tigers relievers come in, one right after another, and go right after the Red Sox hitters.
They were supremely aggressive. Alburqerque pounded the strike zone like you’ve never seen before. Veras busted out heat and curves — admit it — you didn’t know he had. Smyly went after David Ortiz like he was David Eckstein. And Benoit was Benoit, always in control, even if it seemed otherwise to you and I. Those four wanted to pile up nine precious outs far more than they wanted to be a footnote in history.
That’s because this team knew full well what a Game 1 victory might mean, given they have Verlander pitching Sunday, and then Scherzer on Tuesday. It was absolutely huge.
And it’s why when Benoit gave up the one-out single to Daniel Nava in the ninth inning, you barely even saw a grimace. Just win the game. That might as well have been the mantra. And it’s why Benoit might just be the happiest man ever who just cost his teammates a chance to be a part of a no-hitter.
News: Tigers pitchers finished the night with 17 more strikeouts.
Views: Big surprise, eh?
They set a major league record for strikeouts in a regular season by a pitching staff (1,428). Then they set a Division Series record (57).
And they appear well on their way to adding to the record books, against a Red Sox team that, for all that firepower, does tend to swing a miss a bunch, too.
Not every Red Sox hitter, it appeared, was willing to give them full credit for what went down Saturday night, however. Many openly took issue with “Country” Joe West’s zone behind the plate, though by my count he only missed two calls badly — one against Lester, and another, later, against Sanchez.
In fact, West, actually, was less of a storyline than you expect him to be when the eyes of the nation are — as he prefers — upon him.
It’s why I was mighty impressed with the response given by Red Sox manager John Farrell afterward, when the topic of umpiring came up. He refused to point blame, emphasizing it’d be “shortsighted” to take away what the Tigers pitching staff accomplished — with all those power arms they have, as he also noted.
As for the Red Sox players, they danced around the West discussion — and that’s a smart move. There’s no sense rocking the boat, especially when West, who’s been believed to hold a grudge or two, could be behind the plate again if the series goes to a Game 7.
News: Miguel Cabrera came out of the game early again.
Views: And it nearly cost the Tigers.
His replacement, Don Kelly, got to bat in the ninth inning, with runners on the corner, one out — and a chance for an insurance run that’s always important, but especially in Fenway Park, where that vaunted Green Monster stands barely 300 feet from home.
And, predictably, Kelly, facing Red Sox closer, Koji Uehara, was flat-out overmatched, and he struck out. Then Prince Fielder hit a looper to short center that looked like trouble, until shortstop Stephen Drew made, outside that old Willie Mays highlight, as good an over-the-shoulder catch as you’ll see under the circumstances.
So the Tigers lead stayed at just one.
It proved not to matter, of course, as did taking Jhonny Peralta’s bat out of the lineup for a pinch-runner (Ramon Santiago).
But you’ve got to be oh, so careful in these situations. If the Red Sox managed to tie the game and the Tigers were stuck without two pivotal bats heading to extras, it’s tough to imagine a circumstance where they seize that all-important 1-0 lead in the series.
The Dodgers got caught in a similar bind Friday, when manager Don Mattingly pinch-ran for Adrian Gonzalez in the eighth inning of Game 1, then was without one of his best hitters the next five innings of a game the Cardinals eventually won in 13.
Mattingly, afterward, said he’d make the move again.
Leyland? Well, we’ll see.