Few Detroit Tigers have dominated Comerica Park like Aníbal Sánchez did a decade ago.
Justin Verlander no-hit the Brewers there in 2007. Armando Galarraga threw a perfect game (minus, y’know, that wrong call at the end) against Cleveland there in 2010. More recently, Matthew Boyd got within an out of a no-hitter against the White Sox there back in 2017.
And then there were the pair of starts by Sánchez not even a month apart in the spring of 2013. In the first, on April 26, he struck out 17 Atlanta Braves, with 14 on whiffs — in all, the most strikeouts in a game in Tigers franchise history. “Amazing,” he told reporters after finding out about the record. “It’s amazing I can do that for a team that has over 100 years.”
Still, he wasn’t one to rest on past success: “I’m going to keep working,” Sánchez said after the milestone. “That’s not going to stop today.”
And so he did.
A month later, on May 24 — exactly a decade ago this Wednesday — he merely struck out 12 while getting within two outs of a no-hitter of his own against the Minnesota Twins. Only a single up the middle by star catcher Joe Mauer ended that bid. Sánchez was still going strong, though — he ended the game with a pair of strikeouts.
“You know what?” then-Tigers manager Jim Leyland told reporters that night. “When you pitch a one-hitter and the one hit you give up is to a guy who has three batting titles and is a great hitter — one of the best in baseball and has been for a long time — that’s a hell of a performance. He was terrific.”
Hello, and welcome to the Whiffs of Greatness Newsletter.
Sánchez announced his retirement from baseball on Wednesday via Instagram. In all, he pitched 16 seasons: Six with the Tigers, seven with the Florida/Miami Marlins (his first franchise), one with the Braves and three with the Washington Nationals. His back-of-the-baseball-card stats — a 116-119 record and a 4.06 ERA — won’t land him in the Hall of Fame. But on any given night, Sánchez was capable of delivering a Hall of Fame performance for nine innings.
Yes, there were the strikeout games (his gem against the Braves was marred only by five hits over eight innings). But there was more than that: Sánchez threw four complete-game one-hitters over his career, tied with Madison Bumgarner for the most of any pitcher this century. (Justin Verlander only has two … though he also has three no-nos.) Sánchez also threw a no-hitter in just his 14th career appearance, shutting down the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sept. 6, 2006.
Less than six years later, he joined the Tigers in a late-July trade deal (along with Omar Infante for prospects Rob Brantly, Brian Flynn and Jacob Turner) that delivered anything but a sure thing. After the no-hitter, Sánchez struggled with injuries, not reaching 30 starts in a season until his fifth big-league campaign. His final two full seasons in Florida featured a 3.61 ERA and 359 strikeouts in 391⅓ innings, but he also had a 3.94 ERA at the time of the 2012 trade. He found a new gear in the playoffs, however, allowing just four earned runs over 20⅓ innings against the A’s, Yankees and Giants as the Tigers returned to the World Series; that led to a five-year, $80 million deal (following two months of free agency) with the Tigers.
Sánchez earned that dough in 2013; he allowed just nine homers over 182 innings, and his 2.57 ERA led the American League. He still finished just fourth in AL Cy Young voting, buried by teammate Max Scherzer, as well as Texas’ Yu Darvish (who led the majors with 277 strikeouts) and Seattle’s Hisashi Iwakuma (whose 7 bWAR was the best in the AL). That postseason brought another all-time moment, as Sánchez no-hit the Red Sox in Boston for six innings in Game 1 of the ALCS — while striking out 12 again — before handing it over to the bullpen. (The combined no-hitter was broken up with one out in the ninth.)
Again, Sánchez had done the work, motivated by giving up six runs in 4⅓ innings in the first round of the postseason: “I work on my mechanics during the off days, and I try to put it in the game,” he told reporters in Boston.
But the Tigers’ loss in that series foreshadowed the franchise’s decline, as well as Sánchez’s. A strained right pectoral muscle cost him nearly two months of the 2014 season; he made just one relief appearance in late September, and then threw two scoreless innings of relief in the Tigers’ most recent playoff game, a 7-6 loss to the Baltimore Orioles in Game 3 of the ALDS.
Sánchez was far from dominating over the final three years of his Tigers deal, posting a 5.67 ERA while allowing 85 homers over 415⅔ innings. When the Tigers declined his option in November 2017, few foresaw much success left for the 33-year-old. But Sánchez kept putting in the work, and there he was with the Braves in 2018, turning in a 2.83 ERA. And the next season, Sánchez finally became a champion, thanks to three postseason starts with the Nationals (including an NLDS no-decision featuring nine strikeouts in just five innings, followed by 7⅔ innings of no-hit ball in the NLCS).
And now, he’s calling it a career. How do you sum all that up? 364 appearances with 1,774 strikeouts over 2017⅔ innings? Just over 40% of those — 738 — came as a Tiger (good for 26th on the franchise’s all-time list). Sánchez’s strikeout rate as a Tiger is a little more impressive — his 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings ranks fourth — which brings us back to Sánchez’s 17-strikeout game in April 2013, and the postgame words from his catcher, Brayan Peña, that basically sum up the greatest era for Sánchez and the Tigers: “It was one of those nights, you didn’t want it to end.”
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Hey, what’s Peña up to these days? The 12-year big-league vet is well into his second career as a manager and in his fourth season running the Tigers’ High-A affiliate, the West Michigan Whitecaps. The Freep’s Jeff Seidel popped over to the west side of the state last week and found a lot of good. Like, say, the young hitters, who delivered a big rally in front of busloads of schoolkids. Head here to find out who swung the big sticks. He also discovered yet another prospect flying under the radar while, ahem, controlling the strike zone; head here to meet Justice Bigbie, the Tigers’ 2021 19th-round pick who’s hitting .330 this season.
Oh, yeah, that list of the Tigers with the top strikeouts per nine innings? The first name is pretty predictable — Scherzer (9.6) as is the third — Verlander (8.5). But sitting at No. 2? That would be Matthew Boyd, at 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings. Boyd only had four strikeouts on Friday night as he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, but that’s better than his previous start, in which he only got four outs, period. Head here to find out from the Freep’s Evan Petzold what he worked on between the outings.
Boyd’s Friday outing got off to a good start when Zach McKinstry homered to open the game in Washington. The Central Michigan alumnus is slashing .302/.415/.396 from the leadoff spot this season. Our Man Seidel talked with the 28-year-old and his parents about why he’s feeling so confident these days; head here to find out how that’s translating on the field.
3 to watch
Despite all those words about starters, it’s not how you start, but how you finish. Or something like that…
Jolly Greene giant
Which Tiger is tops in May slugging? That would be Riley Greene, who has a .365/.412/.556 slash line in 68 plate appearances this month. For his part, Greene told Our Man Petzold that he’s not really doing anything different, other than feeling more confident at the place. Well, there was a slight facial hair change, too: Head here to find out why Greene said, “The mustache got me above water, and then we went to work.”
Happy birthday, Gibby!
Kirk Gibson, the former Tigers (and Michigan State) star and current Tigers broadcaster, turns 66 on Sunday. Birthdays weren’t always kind to Gibby, as we noted in 2019: “In his first stint in Detroit, from 1979-87, he played just four games on his birthday, hitting .176 with two RBIs. But in his second stint, from 1993-95, well, Gibby was the one giving the gifts. In 1994, he didn’t get into the game against the Twins in Minneapolis until the seventh inning, but homered in that at-bat to tie the game, then homered again in the ninth to give the Tigers the lead. The next year, his last in the majors, Gibby pulled out all the stops: He went 4-for-6 with two homers, a double and two RBIs.” You may have noticed the six-season gap in his Tigers tenure there; he did a deep dive on his time in Los Angeles with the Freep’s Carlos Monarrez back in March. Head here to find out how Gibby got out of going to the White House after the Dodgers’ 1988 World Series win.
Other Tigers birthdays this week: Jordan Zimmermann (37 on Tuesday), Brad Penny (45 on Wednesday), Darrell Evans (76 on Friday), Jhonny Peralta (41 on Sunday).
Mark your calendar
No off days this week, as the Tigers jump right into a series against the awful Royals in Kansas City — will we get to see Miguel Cabrera face Zack Greinke again in Wednesday’s series finale? Head here to find out how Cabrera can earn extra playing time — followed by a return home Thursday for a four-game set against the almost-as-awful White Sox (who swept the Royals over the weekend). Oh, and in case you don’t check your email early on Mondays, NEXT Monday’s game at the CoPa against the Texas Rangers is a 1:10 p.m. start.
You could take our word for it how good Sanchez’s 17-strikeout game was back in 2013 — we caught a lot of it from the FreepSports office (remember those?) while waiting for our IT guys to work out the kinks in a then-new publishing system on deadline. Or … you could watch the highlights here. Or … you could just believe Leyland, who had this to say the following morning: “I just watched it here, I counted six swinging in the dirt for strike three,” he said. “That means your stuff’s good.”