BOSTON -- Anibal Sanchez was like Charlie Chaplin trying to cross the street in some silent film. You remember Charlie, walking that funny little walk, derby hat and cane, wandering through the traffic. First a streetcar would threaten to flatten him, send him to the sweet hereafter. Then he, oops, would step out of the way at the very last instant. Then a safe would fall from an office building, hurtling downwards at a high rate of speed. Oops, it would just miss. Then a vicious dog would grab ahold of one pants leg, a truck would drop a load of gravel, a banana would appear on the sidewalk, dead ahead. Oops and oops and oops. There was Charlie, safe on the other side of the street.
OK, there was Detroit Tigers pitcher Anibal Sanchez.
Finished after six innings of work last night at Fenway Park.
No runs, no hits, no errors.
"Did that game ever feel like a no-hitter to you?" Tigers manager Jim Leyland was asked after Sanchez helped pitch his team to a one-hit, 1-0 win over the Boston Red Sox in the first game of the American League Championship Series.
"No, not really," the 68-year-old manager replied. "Leading by one run in this ballpark you really feel like you're behind. One walk and a swing of the bat here and you are behind."
The fact that Red Sox left fielder Daniel Nava stroked a clean single to center with one out in the ninth saved this game from being the most untidy pitching masterpiece in history. ("That's art?" the museum patron would ask. "My kid could do that.") Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series, this was not.
Five pitchers went to the mound for the Tigers. None of them were thinking about history. All were thinking about survival. Even Sanchez, the star of the pitching show. Especially Sanchez, the star of the pitching show.
Six days earlier, starting in the third game of the Division Series against the Oakland A's, the 29-year-old right hander from Maracay, Venezuela, was hammered. This came as a great surprise to him. He had decided to throw the ball as hard as he could against the A's. Blind them with his speed. He blinded them with nothing. The speed was delivered too often to the middle of the plate. The return fly balls went past him faster than he had sent them. Three went over the fence. He was finished after four and a third innings, credited with surrendering five earned runs.
The performance, after a stellar 14-8 season that included a 2.57 ERA that led all American starters, not to mention the fact he had signed a new five-year contract with the Tigers worth $80 million, was unsettling. Sanchez fidgeted as his team needed all five games to eliminate the A's and give him another post-season chance. He also tinkered.
What had he done wrong against the A's? What changes did he have to make to do better against the Red Sox? He went back to mechanics, back to basics, back to the familiar stating place. The approach against the A's had been dead wrong. He didn't have to throw the fastest fastball in the history of all fastballs. He had to pay more attention to where that fastball was traveling.
"I had to get back to basic baseball," Sanchez said. "Try to get on top of the ball. Just try to get ahead in the count. Throw pitches for strikes."
Simply pitching at Fenway would be a different experience. The Red Sox were the team that had signed him to his first professional contract. Fenway was where he always wanted to be, his dream baseball location. When he pitched in rookie ball in Lowell, Ma., then in Double A in Portland, Me., he would come to the park, sit in the stands as a fan, watch Pedro Martinez and wonder what it would be like to be on that mound. Traded along with Hanley Ramirez to the Marlins after the 2005 season in a deal that brought Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett and ultimately a World Series championship to Boston, then traded to the Tigers in 2012, this was his first start at that dream location.
When he struck out four batters in the first inning to tie a record set in 1908 by the immortal Orval Overall of the Cubs, the bizarre tone for the evening was established. (The possibility of four strikeouts was established when Shane Victorino struck out on a slider that bounced in the dirt, then skipped past catcher Alex Avila. This allowed Victorino to run to first.) There would be a lot of work. The Red Sox wanted to extend the pitch count, make Sanchez throw strikes. Sanchez wanted to throw only strikes on the edges of the FoxTrax pitch zone. This meant a lot of pitches would be thrown.
"That's the two qualities of fastball pitchers," manager Leyland said. "They're not so valuable sometimes because with the strikeouts they get the pitch counts to go up. But when you get guys on base and you need an out, that's when the strikeouts are really valuable. So it's sort of a bittersweet thing."
Looked great, Sanchez did, as the strikeouts began to accumulate in a nice pile. Looked troubled, he did, as the pitch count clicked like the National Debt Clock in Times Square. When he hit his final inning, the two variables collided. He walked the bases full around a couple of outs. His pitch count soared past 100. His final batter was Sox shortstop Stephen Drew. Sanchez collected himself, went back to his full windup with the bases loaded, struck out Drew to a large Fenway moan on his 116th and final pitch.
He finished with 12 strikeouts, six walks, a couple of wild pitches. Two relievers, Al Alburquerque and Drew Smyly, were hard at work in the bullpen as Drew fanned. And, yes, the no-hitter was intact.
"Were you thinking about the no-hitter?" Sanchez was asked in the interview room at the end of the night.
"You think about it when you get the zeroes across the scoreboard, inning by inning, but not so much tonight," he said. "The win is more important than the no-hitter."