Making some sense of the Saturday Night Miracle

Al Bello

What happened Saturday night on the edge of the Back Bay Fens was ... well, it was a miracle of sorts, nearly the third no-hitter in postseason history and first combined no-hitter in postseason history. Oh, and it was the first time the Red Sed Sox got whitewashed in a postseason game at Fenway Park since 1918. Granted, unless something's done to slow the Strikeout Scourge, there will be more miracles. Still, it was a miracle.

It was also a Reminder, and a Revelation.

It was a reminder that Anibal Sánchez is just an outstanding pitcher. By one account, Sánchez was the third-best pitcher in the major leagues this season. By another, he was sixth best. Sanchez finished the season with the American League's lowest ERA, and would probably do even better on those lists if he hadn't missed most of June with a shoulder injury. Granted, he never did become a household name; Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander made sure of that. But anybody who really followed the American League this season knew, intellectually if not emotionally, that Sánchez had a tremendous season.

And then, emotionally if not intellectually, some of us forgot. Because in his first national start, the first all year that most of us saw from the first pitch to the last, Sánchez struggled; it was just the third time all season, and the first since the middle of June, that he didn't last at least five whole innings. But for many of us, I'll bet, that short outing against the A's in their Division Series left a bigger impression that it probably should have.

Well, now we have another, even bigger impression. And it's a far better symbol of a tremendous season.

Saturday night was a revelation for anybody who still thinks of Phil Coke and Jose Valverde -- the most notable figures in the Detroit bullpen just a year ago -- when they think of this Detroit bullpen. Of course it's not just a year ago; even this spring, Coke opened the season as the Tigers' closer, and Valverde got his turn too. So did rookie Bruce Rondon, for about eight seconds. Oh, and so did Joaquin Benoit, back in April. But his manager apparently didn't think Benoit had the necessities for the job. Enter: Papa Grande for his encore (and probably last) performance.

The idea, see, was that the Tigers were so much better than everyone else in the American League Central that they could take a month or three to get the relief corps in order.

Which was, in the event, essentially what happened. And just in time, too; the Tigers wound up finishing exactly one game ahead of the second-place Indians. Thanks in part to the revamped bullpen. For a couple of months, it was a mess. Especially in those pesky save situations. But Benoit finally got the big job in the middle of June, at which point everything sort of fell into place. At least in those pesky save situations. Where the ninth inning had been a huge weakness, suddenly it became a real strength. Drew Smyly, a starter-in-waiting, pitched brilliantly all season out of the bullpen. And both participated in the Game 1 whitewashing.

The rest of the Tigers' bullpen, though? Seems vulnerable, still. Al Alburquerque walked a ton of guys this season. Rookie left-hander Jose Alvarez finished the season with a 5.82 ERA, leaving the Tigers with just one reliable southpaw (Smyly). And then there's 32-year-old journeyman Jose Veras, who does have the virtue of being a real-life major leaguer in good standing for some years.

So they're better than they were last spring. But they're still vulnerable.

Not that it mattered Saturday night, the lasting image of which will be Red Sox batters striking out, and grumbling afterward. Here's just one of many examples:

Nooooo! That was loooowwwwww!

Was it? Hey, anything's possible. The camera plays tricks. But Joe West called a pretty good zone, and when he did miss?

Click on that link, and you'll see that West did probably miss a few. But the ones he missed were close, and when he missed them, he missed more in the Red Sox' favor than not.

It was just one of those games. It was a reminder, a revelation, and a lesson in the vagaries of seemingly random statistical performances in athletic events comprised of hundreds of distinct activities. Oh, and almost four hours.

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