Anibal enters Tigers lore with 17-K performance
Right-hander breaks 44-year-old club record held by Lolich against Braves
DETROIT -- An hour or so before first pitch, Brayan Pena was nervously preparing to catch Anibal Sanchez for the first time Friday night, going over the Tigers' game plan for a Braves offense that leads the Majors in home runs and has hit Sanchez hard in the past, when Sanchez tried to calm him down.
"When we went over the game plan," Pena recalled, "he said, 'I just want you to relax, I just want you to smile, and I just want you to be happy. And I just want you to be you, because you're going to have a lot of fun tonight.'"
Sanchez didn't have history on his mind when he said it.
"Yeah, that's what I said: 'Just relax, man, and have fun,'" Sanchez said after the Tigers' 10-0 win over the Braves. "That's what I always say to the catcher there. Even if we have a bad game, all the time I say, 'Relax, have fun,' because I'm aware how blessed we are on the field, especially with this team. You have to do what you have to do. Just have fun, get relaxed and play ball."
So when Pena was on his way back to the dugout in the eighth inning, having caught the breaking ball that sent down Dan Uggla swinging once again for Sanchez's 17th strikeout of the game, he couldn't wipe the smile off his face. He couldn't help but tell Sanchez how proud he was.
"Man, I did," Pena said, shaking his head. "I did have a lot of fun."
The Detroit Tigers have over a century of history, and a lot of pitching greats are a part of it, from Hall of Famers Hal Newhouser and Jim Bunning to Hall of Fame hopeful Jack Morris to 30-game winner Denny McLain. They have two pitchers who threw multiple no-hitters, Justin Verlander and Virgil Trucks, and two pitchers who have won pitching Triple Crowns, Verlander and Newhouser.
None of them struck out 17 batters in a game. When Sanchez fanned Uggla for the fourth time on his 121st pitch of the night, he took the single-game franchise record from the great Mickey Lolich. No Tigers right-hander had struck out more than 15 in a game.
Lolich's mark stood for 44 years. It survived Morris, Verlander and Max Scherzer. It couldn't hold up against what Sanchez threw at the Braves on Friday night.
"Amazing," Sanchez said. "It's amazing that I can do that for this team. Over 100 years, it's amazing."
Over the recent years, on a team that had the American League's strikeout leader and runner-up last year with Verlander and Scherzer, it's equally impressive.
"Anibal is No. 1 [on the staff]," Scherzer said. "I'm No. 2, and Ver is, well, just average."
It's amazing what Sanchez has done for this team in how little time. Friday was Sanchez's 20th start as a Tiger, including three last postseason. He already had a place in franchise lore for helping pitch Detroit to the World Series, and he has a shutout from their playoff drive last September.
Now, he has a place in the record books.
"All those great pitchers that have worn the Detroit Tigers uniform," Pena said, "and for him to come out tonight the way he did, it was unbelievable."
Torii Hunter can't dig back that far into Tigers lore, but he can dig into 17 years of Major League experience. He has a hard time topping this.
"I have to tip my cap," Hunter said. "That's probably one of the best performances I've seen from a pitcher. He made history."
All Hunter could do was watch. None of Detroit's outfielders had a putout. The only time Hunter touched the ball all evening was to field Andrelton Simmons' line-drive single with two outs in the eighth and Sanchez sitting at 16 strikeouts.
When asked how it was to watch, Hunter smiled.
"It was boring," Hunter said. "Standing out there was boring. But at the same time, it was awesome. The later he stayed out there, the more intense it got. We were pulling for him out there, all the players. And when he got that last strikeout from Uggla, I thought that was pretty impressive."
Hunter was in the outfield as a Minnesota Twin when Johan Santana struck out 17 Texas Rangers on Aug. 19, 2007. Only one pitcher in the Majors, Toronto's Brandon Morrow, had fanned that many in a game since then. Morrow did it against Tampa Bay on Aug. 8, 2010.
Sanchez's performance ties him with the great Santana for the most strikeouts in a game by a Venezuelan-born pitcher. It also ties him with Santana and Randy Johnson for the second-highest strikeout total in a game by a pitcher tossing eight innings or fewer, according to STATS. Only Johnson's 18 strikeouts over eight innings against Texas in 1992 tops that in a game since 1921.
It would be great to say he had nights like this in mind when he re-signed with the Tigers in December, agreeing to a five-year contract. Truth is, Sanchez wasn't even focusing on it Friday. Strikeouts, he insists, weren't part of the game plan.
"It's not something I'm aware [of while pitching]," he said. "I'm more aware to get quick outs. But yeah, it surprised me, a lot of strikeouts."
By the time he realized it, he had history.