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One hit and a lot to wonder about after Anibal Sanchez shuts down Red Sox

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  October 13, 2013 02:14 AM

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This Red Sox lineup of lumberjack-homaging sluggers stacked up 1,566 hits during the regular season, second-most in the major leagues.

Then they collected 38 more during their four-game victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Division Series.

By my quick accounting, that puts them at 1,604 total hits through the first 166 games of this season, meaning they're good for precisely 9.66265 hits per game on average.

Sure, they're known for their collective willingness to work a count and accept a walk whenever its offered. But don't get fooled by the half-formed narrative that they're too patient. They can hit.

It just happens that they didn't last night.

Did I mention that season hit total is all the way up to 1,605 now?

The Red Sox had three days off after their clinching Game 4 victory at Tropicana Field Tuesday. Unfortunately, their bats took four.

Former Red Sox prospect Anibal Sanchez and four Detroit relievers limited the Red Sox to one hit, Daniel Nava's one-out single in the ninth, as the Tigers claimed Game 1 of the ALCS with a 1-0 victory at Fenway Park Saturday night.

The Red Sox' tactic of wearing down a starter and doing damage to the bullpen is frequently effective, but it did not work last night.

Sanchez departed after six innings and 116 pitches, having walked six and whiffed 12 but with fat, glaring zeroes in the hit and run columns.

Al Alburquerque, Jose Veras, Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit followed to combine on the shutout. The five pitchers combined to strike out 17 Red Sox hitters, tying a postseason record for a nine-inning game.

The chance to accomplish the first combined no-hitter (and third overall) in postseason history came up short when Benoit gave up Nava's hit. But the Detroit closer earned the save by getting Xander Bogaerts to pop to shortstop to end it with designated base-thief Quintin Berry on second base.

"You almost feel like you're behind in a place like this, feel like you're behind when you have just one run,'' said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who answer in the negative when asked if he got caught up in the potential no-hitter, Detroit's second in as many games. Justin Verlander took one into the seventh inning in Game 5 of the ALDS.

"With the Monster, although the ball wasn't really carrying tonight, you never feel comfortable. It would have been nice, but there would have been several guys involved no matter what.''

It was a performance both masterful and odd for Sanchez. A former minor-league teammate of Red Sox Game 1 starter Jon Lester, he was dealt to the Marlins along with Hanley Ramirez and some minor-league roster fodder on Thanksgiving 2005 in the franchise-altering Josh Beckett-Mike Lowell swap.

Perceived, justifiably, as the Tigers' third-best starter behind former Cy Young winner Verlander and 2013 Cy Young winner-in-waiting Max Scherzer, has does have his own ace bona fides.

Sanchez won the AL's ERA title this season. He has a no-hitter to his credit. He struck out 17 Braves in an April start this season, then threw a one-hit, 12-strikeout gem against the Twins in May.

And his stuff was electric from the get-go last night, when he became the second pitcher in postseason history to strikeout four batters in an inning when he accomplished the feat in the game's first frame. If you knew Orval Overall of the 1908 Cubs was the other, I must assume you are a proud heir to the Overall fortune.

Sanchez racked up nine strikeouts through four innings, a frustrating enough development for the Red Sox hitters. And home plate umpire Joe West wasn't helping matters. His strike zone was erratic, and the Red Sox became increasingly aggravated with his inconsistent and combative approach.

Shane Victorino barked at him in the sixth inning, which would have been more understandable if he didn't do it before digging into the batter's box.

West does have the deserved reputation as an umpire who believes he's a star attraction, and sometimes it seems like the greatest miracle of the 2004 postseason was that he got two huge calls right in the Red Sox' favor in Game 6 of the ALDS at Yankees Stadium.

But in all fairness, it should be noted that some of the calls that most frustrated the Red Sox -- particularly on checked swings, which were frequent against Sanchez -- were proven correct on replay.

"I can't say there was an issue with the umpiring," said Red Sox manager John Farrell. "That would be taking away from the talent that their pitching staff had. They had good stuff. To say that the umpiring was the reason we didn't get a hit until the ninth inning, that would be a little shortsighted on my part."

The Tigers scored the lone run in the sixth inning on Jhonny Peralta's RBI single, which scored a hobbled Miguel Cabrera. The Red Sox best chance to came in the bottom half of the same inning, but Stephen Drew struck out swinging against Sanchez after he'd loaded the bases on walks. It was his final pitch of the night.

"Getting some zeroes inning by inning was more important than the no-hitter at that point,'' said Sanchez, who said he knew his work was done after six innings. "I think they needed to bring in some fresh arms to get through some innings quickly.''

It gets no easier for the Red Sox, with Scherzer, the AL leader in wins (21) and WHIP (0.97) scheduled to take the ball Sunday, with Verlander lurking.

But you have to figure that at the very least, they'll compile more hits than Jose Iglesias, who matched the Red Sox' team total with a single of his own in the ninth inning. Start with the small goals, you know.

There are other beacons of hope to be spotted. They hit quality pitching just a week ago when then batted around Rays ace David Price. They know, thanks to Benoit's confession after Game 1, that they're unlikely to see a lot of fastballs against the Tigers. They know that it might be wise to test the immobile Cabrera at third with a bunt or two, and if they don't know this, they should:

Seven of the last 13 American League champions lost Game 1 of the ALCS, including the 2004 Red Sox to whom they're often compared.

Make no mistake: Being limited to one hit Saturday doesn't mean there won't be wonders ahead. That season-long hit total won't stagnate in the vicinity of 1,605.

You know this team better than that. This was the first chapter, not the final scene.

"If you haven't been around us this year,'' said Farrell in what sounded like a warning above all else, "we have the ability to put tonight behind us. We'll be ready to go.''

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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