David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BOSTON - The Red Sox, as they usually do, squeezed as many pitches as possible Saturday night out of Anibal Sanchez, 116 in six innings.
What they couldn't do was hit them.
For all the talk of Boston's relentless lineup and its ability to sap the energy of opposing pitchers, the Red Sox forgot they might need a knock or two to beat Sanchez. But they never really came close. Sanchez had them so befuddled at the plate that he struck out 12 in that relatively short span, and the handful of balls put in play were hardly threatening.
The closest the Red Sox came was in the second inning, when leftfielder Jhonny Peralta slipped briefly before camping under Will Middlebrooks' fly ball. Otherwise, they were clueless -- battling both Sanchez and Joe West's amoeba-like strike zone -- as evidenced by the number of weak swings and the failed efforts to check them.
That trend was evident early on, when Sanchez became only the second pitcher in postseason history to strike out four in the same inning. This time it was the first inning, and Shane Victorino made it possible by reaching base on a wild strike three. Sanchez joined the Cubs' Orval Overall, otherwise known as "The Big Groundhog" -- no, we didn't make that up -- who did it during the 1908 World Series.
Others may overlook Sanchez, the No. 3 starter in a Tigers rotation led by Max Scherzer, this year's Cy Young Award favorite, and Justin Verlander, who already owns a Cy trophy and an MVP. But Sanchez did lead the American League with a 2.57 ERA, struck out 17 Braves in April and threw a no-hitter for the Marlins in 2006.
Detroit's other aces know what he's capable of.
"His stuff is phenomenal," Verlander said on the eve of Game 1. "And when he's right, he's unhittable."
So maybe Sanchez wasn't perfect, but the Red Sox -- only the most dangerous offensive team in the majors -- couldn't hit him in their own backyard. But as Sanchez racked up the strikeouts, that escalated his pitch count, which took a toll on him.
He threw 51 pitches in the first two innings, then cut it back to 27 in the next two. Once Sanchez reached 88 through five, however, it became clear that he had almost no chance of finishing the game, and that meant no real shot at a no-hitter.
"It's a Catch-22," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "It's not so valuable because you don't get a lot of quick outs, so the pitch count goes up. But when you get in a jam, then have the capability of striking somebody out -- it works both ways. It's bittersweet."
That was on display in the pivotal sixth inning, when Sanchez -- tiptoeing through the heart of the Red Sox lineup -- wound up walking the bases loaded. The lack of command suggested Sanchez might be fading, but he still was throwing 97 mph, and Leyland kept the bullpen door closed.
That begged the question: If the sixth was Sanchez's last inning, anyway, why not bring in lefty Drew Smyly to face Stephen Drew? But Leyland assumed that the Red Sox would counter with Jonny Gomes if he went with the lefthander. It was a classic situation for a second-guess, but Leyland stuck with Sanchez, who could give him the strikeout the Tigers desperately needed to escape.
And that's what Sanchez delivered. After a first-pitch ball, Drew fouled off the next three before waving at a nasty slider, just as David Ortiz did earlier. Sanchez jumped off the mound and swung his right arm around in a dramatic fist-pump. It looked like an end-zone celebration.
Sanchez got to put an exclamation point on his night, protect the Tigers' 1-0 lead in the process and make some history along the way.
The only other pitcher with 12 strikeouts and six walks in a playoff game was Walter Johnson, who did it in the 1924 World Series, and that took him 12 innings.
Only two other starters had ever made it as far as six innings with a no-hitter intact, the two guys who finished the job -- Roy Halladay in the 2010 ALDS and, of course, Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Pedro Martinez threw six innings of no-hit relief in the 1999 ALDS.
Sanchez got the Tigers as far as he could, and the bullpen came within two outs of completing the no-hitter. But after taking Game 1, they didn't seem disappointed.
"At this point," Sanchez said, "the win is more important."