The celebration was part fist pump, part pirouette.
Anibal Sanchez hopped off the mound knowing he had just pulled off a magic trick to get out of his stickiest situation of the night.
Everywhere he turned, the Red Sox were on base and the Tigers were nursing a one-run lead in the sixth inning.
His stuff was starting to rebel against him, and he needed on out to get out of the inning.
And after missing with a first-pitch fastball, he was already behind to Stephen Drew.
“I just tried to get ahead,” Sanchez said. “I know they had the bases loaded in a really close game. You try to get ahead. I just tried to relax, make some good pitches to get the out.”
Three pitches later, he would send Drew back to the dugout with a face full of bitterness after a futile swing at a 2-and-1 fastball.
It was the last of Sanchez’ 12 strikeouts, and it was easily the most important.
It kept what at that point was six innings of no-hit baseball in tact, kept the Red Sox lineup in a state of unconsciousness, and kept the Tigers in control of a 1-0 lead in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series Saturday night at Fenway Park.
“One run, you almost feel like you’re behind,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.
The Tigers pitching staff was able to turn the lights out on the Red Sox in their 1-0 win.
Five pitchers combined to take a no-hitter into the ninth inning.
“The entire bullpen did an absolutely fantastic job,” Leyland said. “[Al Alburquerque] was as sharp as I’ve seen him. [Jose] Veras was terrific. [Drew] Smyly got one huge out with Papi, who was three for four off him in the past, but I just felt like that was a move you had to make and then [Joaquin] Benoit has been consistently good for the most part of the year, prior to going into the closing role as well as being in the closing role.’’
Keeping the Sox out of the hit column was the last thing on any of their minds, though.
“I wasn’t really worried about a no-hitter,” said Leyland. “It would’ve been nice. But it works out fine for us.”
By the end of the night, the Tigers would set a postseason record with 17 strikeouts.
The Sox put the ball in play just 10 times, and five of those were ground balls. The last time they were shutout at Fenway in the postseason was 1918.
The Tigers’ pitching staff led the American League in strikeouts, and in the rare instance they found themselves in a jam, they used it to get out of it.
“It’s a catch-22,” Leyland said. “It’s not so valuable because you don’t get a lot of quick outs. But it is still valuable because when you get in a jam they have the capabilities to strike somebody out. So it works both ways.”
For Sanchez, it was a bounce back after a brutal start in Game 3 of the Division Series against Oakland.
“I felt good today especially when you’re back from a bad outing,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t feel anywhere close to what I felt when I threw against Oakland at home. I worked a lot on my mechanics during those days and especially tried to prove again today. I think that all my pitches were working. I tried to be on top of the ball to make more movement on the pitch. That’s something that I did early in the season this year and it worked today.”
Even though he had a no-hitter going, he only had three 1-2-3 innings.
By the end of the fifth his pitch count had climbed to 88.
He threw 16-plus pitches in four different innings, navigating the Red Sox lineup like a minefield.
“I just tried to keep my ball down in the strike zone,” he said. “I didn’t try to miss in the middle. That’s why I got a lot of walks today.
His six walks were uncharacteristically high. But it was caution more than carelessness.
For most of the night, a first-pitch strike from Sanchez was essentially a death sentence.
Sanchez started off just 11 of the 25 batters he faced with strikes, but when he did it was fatal.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Daniel Nava, Will Middlebrooks, Mike Napoli, and David Ortiz all took first-pitch strikes over the course time, and each instance ended the same way: with a K.
“The stuff was terrific,” Leyland said. “His stuff was still good when he faced Drew in that inning. He just got out of whack with his control a little bit. But his stuff was good.”
It would have been just the third postseason no-hitter, but to Sanchez the tone-setting win meant more.
“At this point especially in this series it’s not about throwing a no-hitter or something like that,” Sanchez said. “Inning by inning and hitter by hitter as you get someone out, I think the wins more important than the no-hitter at this point.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.