DETROIT — Anibal Sanchez looked at the ring of photos on the walls of the Tigers clubhouse — pictures of the greatest players to ever wear the Olde English D.
All he could do was shake his head.
“It’s amazing,” he said after striking out a franchise-record 17 Atlanta Braves Friday night. “This team has been around for more than 100 years, and I did something that no one has ever done.”
On May 26, 1969, as NASA was getting ready to send Apollo XI to the moon, Mickey Lolich struck out 16 California Angels. Seventeen days later, he struck out 16 Seattle Pilots. Until Friday, that was the most any Tigers pitcher had gotten in 113 seasons of baseball.
“I could never imagine that I would have a game with this many strikeouts,” he said. “You can’t even think like that.”
Sanchez not only broke the record, he did it against one of the hottest teams in baseball.
“That’s an aggressive team that’s hitting every mistake out of the ball park right now, and he just went out and attacked them,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “He knew they were going to let it fly, and he went right after them.”
With the ninth inning still to go, Sanchez knew he had a shot at the biggest strikeout record in the books — the 20 Ks recorded by Roger Clemens and Kerry Wood. Sanchez thought about it right up until the time he looked at the scoreboard.
“When I saw I had thrown 121 pitches, I knew there was no way I was going out for the ninth inning,” he said. “That’s just too many, especially early in the season. I knew I was done.”
So Sanchez settled for first place on a list of strikeout pitchers that starts with George Mullin in 1902 and runs through Jack Morris and Frank Tanana in the 1990s. Sanchez is also ahead of three pretty good pitchers on his own team — Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister.
“That was incredible,” Fister said. “That right there was the art of pitching.”
On his way to 17, Sanchez broke Scherzer’s Comerica Park record of 15 strikeouts, set last May against the Pirates. It’s one of the few categories where Verlander — career best of 14 — is in third place on his own team.
“We were joking about it after the game,” Scherzer said. “Anibal’s number one, I’m number two, and I guess Ver is just average.”
Verlander thought carefully before responding to the ranking — possibly considering his Cy Young Award, MVP and pair of no-hitters.
“That’s OK,” he eventually said. “I’ve got a few other things.”
Fister has a record of his own — he set an American League mark by striking out nine straight Royals last September — but he doesn’t expect to be challenging Sanchez any time soon.
“There’s always friendly competition between us — we are always trying to push each other — but there’s no way you can even think about having a game like that,” Fister said. “Even when I had the streak last year, I was talking about getting as many groundballs as possible. You are just trying to throw strikes and get bad contact.
“There’s no way you can plan to do something like he just did. It’s impossible.”
The most impressed person in the stadium might have been Brayan Pena, who was catching Sanchez for the first time.
“He told me before the game to relax and just have fun,” Pena said. “I couldn’t believe what he was doing.
“There have been a lot of great, great pitchers that have played for the Tigers, and he just beat all of them. I told him I was really proud of him.”
No one, though, was prouder than Leyland, who caught Lolich in spring training before the 1969 season. Leyland has managed 3,358 games and watched a lot more, but he had a hard time thinking of a better pitching performance than what he saw Friday night.
“Obviously, that’s right up there,” he said. “It’s hard to get much better than that.”