If we can indulge in a brief moment of Welcome Back, Baseball — still early enough in the season, right? — it’s a joy to watch a sport that puts the ball in the hands of the defense. Virtually any other sport you care to name turns a defensive player into an offensive player as soon as he takes possession of the ball. Not so with baseball, which not coincidentally keeps the most scrupulous account of individual defensive stats (qua pitching) and gives defense the most credit for inciting terrible offense. Thus when we look at the Tigers’ 10-0 win over the Braves on Friday we do not resignedly say, as we would for a similar football score, that the losing team just couldn’t pull its shit together. We get say, Holy cats, was that Anibal Sanchez ever on fire.
In the Tigers' 17,520th regular-season game, Sanchez set the club record with 17 strikeouts. He was just three shy of the nine-inning game Major League record of 20 that Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens share. Even more amazingly, Sanchez sat after the eighth inning (in which he mowed down the side). And he didn’t do it against the likes of the Astros. Even with the loss, the Braves maintain the best record in the National League.
Barring a perfect game, this will likely go down as the best pitching performance of 2013. According to STATS, since 1921 only Sanchez and Randy Johnson have managed 17 strikeouts in just eight innings. Johnson, then with the Mariners, rang up 18 Texas Rangers in September of 1992. To put the feat in perspective, since that game there have been 47 no-hitters thrown, and only Johnson, Clemens, Wood and Ben Sheets have thrown more than 17 strikeouts.
Also, bizarrely, Johnson lost that game 21 years ago. He and the opposing starter, a spry 45-year-old named Nolan Ryan, both allowed two runs apiece (Ryan in seven innings, with five strikeouts). Neither man figured into the decision. In the bottom of the ninth, Rafael Palmeiro pinch-hit a walk-off sac fly off a Seattle reliever; thus Johnson wound up striking out the fourth-most batters ever in a team's loss. “I was playing cards before the game and Nolan called to congratulate me on how well I have been pitching," Johnson said later. "If I was going to lose to someone, I wouldn't mind losing to him.”
The Associated Press game story included this assessment of Johnson’s slider:
"It was the hammer from hell," said Rangers' first baseman Jack Daugherty, who struck out twice against Johnson and claimed the slider didn't actually cross the strike zone. "You couldn't reach it until it was in the catcher's glove."
Johnson threw 160 pitches, set the American League strikeout record for a lefty and outlasted Nolan Ryan. But Sanchez on Friday surpassed Johnson in every meaningful way. Sanchez threw 39 fewer pitches, he shut the Braves out, he walked just one (to Johnson’s four) and he notched the win, his third of the season. If he keeps this up the Detroit rotation is going to be a juggernaut. Early math says the Tigers could threaten the Major League record for team strikeouts in a season, held by the 2003 Cubs. Putting aside the fact that there is no worse fate in sport than to be the 2003 Cubs, that may be a damn feat in the making.
Sanchez fans 17, Tigers beat Braves 10-0 [Associated Press]
Picture credit: Getty