BOSTON – Please understand, the scary part wasn't that the Boston Red Sox spent 3 hours, 42 minutes completely fooled by the Detroit Tigers on Saturday night. It was not that it took the Red Sox 153 pitches to get their first hit, nor that the clock was four minutes shy of midnight and they were about to turn into one of history's great postseason pumpkins. It wasn't even the 1-0 loss they swallowed in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, a jagged enough pill itself.
No, this is what deserves to frighten a Red Sox team that doesn't scare easy: The Tigers almost threw the third no-hitter in postseason history with their No. 3 starter, and Nos. 1 and 2 await Boston over the next two games. Anibal Sanchez was the appetizer for main course, Max Scherzer, and dessert, Justin Verlander.
And it's why from the beginning of the season, the Tigers, more than any team in the AL, have owned the ability to own the postseason. No team matches their gift to throw inning after shutdown inning, even if some of those innings can turn ugly like they did in Game 1 and necessitate a patchwork effort that better resembled a fine quilt. Five pieces – Anibal Sanchez, Al Alburquerque, Jose Veras, Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit – stared down the league's best offense and yielded one measly single, a Daniel Nava looper to center field off Benoit with one out in the ninth.
"I'm not worried about getting a no-hitter at the time," Benoit shrugged, and hard though it may be to believe, he wasn't the only one. Benoit realized the Tigers were throwing a no-hitter in the seventh. Alburquerque didn't know until the ninth. Verlander recognized it in the fifth, perhaps because he has thrown two himself and knows the feeling. Except, he said, "it didn't have that feel to it. It had a business-like 'we just need to win this ballgame.' Obviously you can't say this in the heat of the game, but I'm thinking if we do no-hit these guys, do we even go on the field and celebrate? I don't think that's right."
That the Tigers are in a good enough spot to see a no-hit celebration as moral dilemma speaks to their drastic swing in fortune over the last week. Twice they were a game away from dropping the division series to Oakland. Now they've got Scherzer and Verlander for four games, not to mention Sanchez at least one more, and they need to win just three of those to advance to the World Series. No wonder a no-hitter registered as a tremor rather than a mainshock.
"There's much bigger things going on here," Verlander said.
[Related: Check out photos of ALCS Game 1 right here]
Still, in the aftermath of Sanchez's never-before-seen start and the maligned bullpen's yeoman's work, the Tigers were happy to reflect on grabbing an advantage in a game that seemed like it never wanted to end. The 1-0 NLCS game earlier in the day took nearly an hour and a half less than its American League counterpart, a testament to the Red Sox's willingness to grind on Sanchez and his ability to play diamond and wear them out instead.
From the beginning of Game 1, Sanchez's stuff was auditioning for Dancing With the Stars. It did the lambada with Jacoby Ellsbury, the cha-cha with Shane Victorino, the tango with David Ortiz and the waltz with Mike Napoli. Sanchez became the first pitcher in more than a century to strike out four batters in an inning. The last was Orval Overall, who did it in 1908 for the Cubs. When the Cubs have won a World Series since a record, that makes it old.
"At times, I didn't know where the ball was gonna go," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "And at times, I felt like just set up and somehow catch the ball."
As much as the Red Sox tried to run Sanchez's pitch count up, he was, Avila said, "effectively wild." Not to mention wildly effective. Fourth inning: strike out the side. Fifth: a 1-2-3 inning. Come the sixth, after Jhonny Peralta's RBI single scored Miguel Cabrera and gave Detroit a one-run cushion, Sanchez walked the bases loaded. It prompted an intervention by pitching coach Jeff Jones, which was an odd sight indeed: a mound visit in the middle of a no-hitter. Sanchez calmed down and escaped with a strikeout of Stephen Drew on his 116th pitch.
[Also: Cardinals' Michael Wacha in midst of coming-of-age postseason]
Never before, in the regular season or postseason, in the hundreds of thousands of starts by pitchers in the major leagues, had anyone put up a line like Sanchez's: six innings, zero hits, six walks, 12 strikeouts.
From there, the Tigers' bullpen, its supposed weak link, mowed through the Red Sox. Before Nava's hit, five of the previous six Red Sox hitters struck out. The Detroit staff, which set a major league record for strikeouts this season, fell one short of its season high of 18 strikeouts, set in April, when Sanchez went eight innings and punched out 17 hitters.
Sanchez threw a no-hitter in 2006. Alburquerque and Veras and Smyly, all neophytes, did their jobs. Benoit had been here. On Sept. 3, 2002, when he was still a starter with the Texas Rangers, Aaron Myette was ejected for throwing at leadoff hitter Melvin Mora. Todd Van Poppel relieved with two no-hit innings, and Benoit took over in the third. For five innings, he preserved a no-hitter, only to give up a leadoff triple to Jerry Hairston Jr. in the ninth.
"Wanted to kill him," Benoit said.
He didn't feel quite the same about Nava. A no-hitter would've been fun, sure – only Don Larsen and Roy Halladay have completed one in the postseason – but the 1-0 series lead is gravy enough. The Tigers believe they've got the distinct pitching advantage with this season's soon-to-be Cy Young winner Scherzer in Game 2 and vintage-looking Verlander in Game 3. In October, preached veteran outfielder Torii Hunter, "Offense ain't nothing."
Much as they tried to put a happy face on getting one-hit in their own ballpark, the Red Sox slouched out of Fenway understanding that Sunday's 8:07 p.m. ET game could define their season. "It's going to be a long series," Napoli said, though it sounded more like a bromide than anything, because predicting something like that after a disaster like Game 1 is Platitude 101.
So was the reaction at Fenway. Maybe they were drunk, or maybe, like Albuquerque, they didn't exactly realize what was going on. Because when "Sweet Caroline" came on in the middle of the eighth inning, the crowd of 38,210 sang along: "So good, so good, so good." And when Victorino stepped to the plate a minute later, with his walkup music "Three Little Birds" by Bob Marley, the sing-along continued with: "Every little thing ... is gonna be all right."
For the Red Sox on Saturday, nothing was right, nothing was good, and the worst part is what's left to come. Scherzer on Sunday. Verlander on Tuesday. Perhaps not a no-no. Just an oh, no.