BOSTON — The Tigers opened the AL championship series Saturday night in an unfamiliar role as something other than the favorites.
By one newspaper’s estimation, the last-place-to-first tenants of Fenway Park that did not expect to be here (the Red Sox) have the advantage over the team that did in 10 of 12 categories. The Boston Herald gave the Tigers a canyon-sized edge at third base with reigning Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and a narrower lead to their starting pitching.
Yet Saturday night, in a game for the ages, the Tigers ensured the path to the World Series will run through Detroit.
Anibal Sanchez and four relievers came within two outs of throwing the first combined no-hitter in postseason history as the Tigers held off Boston 1-0 and provided a 101-year-old ballpark with one of its most indelible October moments.
In a classic befitting the first postseason meeting of two charter members of the AL, the 29-year-old Sanchez struck out 12 over six innings — then became the first pitcher ever to be pulled from a playoff game with a no-hitter through six innings as his pitch count soared.
Al Alburquerque, Jose Veras, and Drew Smyly handed off the no-hitter to Joaquin Benoit. The Tigers closer struck out Mike Napoli to lead off the ninth before Daniel Nava entered the annals of trivia, spoiling history with a two-strike single.
It was just the second time in more than a century of postseason baseball that a no-hitter was broken up in the ninth inning. In Game 4 the 1947 World Series, Yankees pitcher Bill Bevens famously threw 8 2/3 no-hit innings, only to allow a game-winning walkoff double to the Dodgers’ Cookie Lavagetto.
Saturday, though, there would be no heartbreak. Just after the clock struck midnight, with history tossed aside, Benoit got Stephen Drew to fly to right field and Xander Bogaerts to pop up to shortstop Jose Iglesias.
No-no or not, the Tigers’ sense of satisfaction was the same. The Tigers will look to Max Scherzer today in Game 2.
"At this point, especially in this series, it’s not about throwing no-hitter," Sanchez said. "The win is more important."
Said manager Jim Leyland: "Particularly in a place like this, with a one run lead, you almost feel like you're behind. A walk and one swing of the bat with the Green Monster and ... . I wasn't really worried about the no-hitter. It would have been nice. But it worked out fine for us."
Jhonny Peralta, meanwhile, provided just enough help at the plate as he continued his postseason redemption tour.
Despite one missed opportunity after another, the shortstop-turned-left-fielder hit a two-out bloop RBI single off Boston starter Jon Lester in the sixth.
But this night was about the Tigers’ arms. Sanchez used four pitches with devastating effect — a mid-90s fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup — to humble a deep lineup that led the majors in runs scored.
Brushing off his out-of-character lemon in Game 3 of the division series, he returned to the swing-and-miss form of the league’s ERA leader from the start.
How soon was it apparent? His first inning was unmatched in franchise history.
After vanquishing the club’s single-game strikeout record with 17 against the Braves in April, Sanchez shifted his attention to the single-inning mark. He became the first major league pitcher to strike out four hitters in an inning in the postseason since the Cubs last won the World Series. (Chicago’s Orval Overall had four Ks in Game 5 of the 1908 World Series.)
The right-hander struck out Jacoby Ellsbury looking and Shane Victorino, David Ortiz, and Napoli swinging, with history made possible by Sanchez’s wild third strike to Victorino. The ball skipped under catcher Alex Avila’s glove to the backstop and Victorino raced safely to first.
The Red Sox enjoyed no better luck the rest of the night. Sanchez’s only vulnerability was his command, which led to a season-high six walks and high drama in his final inning.
He became the fourth pitcher in postseason history to throw at least six hitless innings. The Yankees’ Don Larsen threw a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter in the 2010 division series, and Boston’s Pedro Martinez threw six no-hit innings of relief in Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS.
Sanchez and the four relievers also combined for 17 strikeouts — matching the most in a nine-inning postseason game. The Cardinals — read: Bob Gibson — struck out 17 Tigers in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series and the Padres struck out 17 Astros in a combined effort in Game 1 of the 1998 NLDS.
"Whether it was Sanchez or every guy they brought out of the bullpen, it was power stuff," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "They had a secondary pitch they could go to. ... A lot of swings and misses, obviously."
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.