Former Tiger Sanchez back on big stage after years of adversity

There was always something fun about an Anibal Sanchez start in Detroit. The righthander made 130 of them in a Tiger uniform in six seasons in the Motor City. He had his ups and his downs, and he made some history.

Tonight in Los Angeles, Sanchez will be on the mound for the Braves in the National League Division Series, an unlikely event considering the way his career spiraled into a tail dive the three previous seasons. Sanchie was 20-30 with a stomach-turning 5.67 ERA in his final three years as a member of the Tigers. Last spring he was cut by the Twins, sent home, his baseball career seemingly over. But tonight he’ll make his seventh postseason start, his first for a team other than Detroit.

As a member of the talented Detroit rotation beginning with his arrival from Miami via trade in the middle of the 2012 season through the most recent Tiger playoff appearance in ’14, Sanchez was a formidable force on the mound. In the League Championship Series in 2012 he manhandled the Yankees in a start at Yankee Stadium, shutting them out in seven innings for a win. He turned in the best start by any Detroit starter in the 2012 World Series. The following season, his first full year in Motown, the Venezuelan won the ERA title and pitched even better in the playoffs. Against the Red Sox in Game One of the ALCS at Fenway Park, Sanchez pitched six innings of no-hit ball and struck out 12 batters.

After his “rental” in 2012, the Tigers signed the free agent righthander to a five-year deal. He was 29 years old, he had a lively arm and the street cred of a big game pitcher. The Tigers were winning, coming off a pennant and with stars in their clubhouse.

In 2013, Sanchez was part of one of the best starting rotations in franchise history, teaming with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Rick Porcello. All five starters won at least 13 games and three of them (JV, Max and Sanchez) topped 200 strikeouts. Though Sanchez was overshadowed by Verlander and Scherzer, he had moments when he seemed to be on their level.

On April 26, 2013, in an interleague contest at Comerica Park against the Braves, Sanchez had his knee-high fastball and changeup working masterfully. He was in the zone, it was like Sanchez and catcher Brayan Pena were playing a high-level game of catch. Only Sanchez was firing 94-mile-per-hour missiles. He struck out a team-record 17 batters in a five-hit win. His emotion won over the crowd, and when Sanchez struck out the side in the eighth to finish his work and break the franchise mark, he pumped his fists as he went back to the dugout.

There were defining images from his time in Detroit, like Sanchie’s habit of kissing the baseball when he got it back from his catcher, or the way he liked to wear his uniform pants bloused and long so it almost obscured his cleats. He had an understated, calm demeanor on the hill, an aura of “cool”.

A month after the 17 K game, Sanchez chased history again in a start in front of the hometown fans against the Twins. On May 24, 2013, his pitches were working again, keeping the Twins guessing, overpowering them with that heater at the knee caps. He worked his way out of a few early walks, then in the middle of the game Sanchez retired 18 straight batters. In the eighth that streak ended, but Anibal got a weak grounder and then he fanned a Twin batter looking, pumping his fist as the inning ended. He had a no-hitter going.

In his prime, Sanchez had a second gear. In the ninth, pursuing his second career no-hitter (his first came when he was 22 years old with the Marlins), Sanchez pushed to that higher gear. He fanned the first batter in the ninth, painting the corner with a fastball. The next hitter was Joe Mauer, that Tiger menace. On a 1-1 pitch, the former batting champ stroked a simple little ground ball up the middle, ruining Sanchie’s no-no bid. Tiger fans gave him a standing ovation and he doffed his cap. It was one of the most enduring moments of that stretch of success for the Tigers. Sanchie bore down and struck out the next two Twins hitters, finishing with a dozen strikeouts and a one-hitter.

For the first three months of 2014, Sanchez was pitching like he did when he won the ERA crown, but then he felt something in his golden arm. He pitched through it, he didn’t always tell the Tigers how bad the injury was, he tried to battle it. Finally in early August he missed a start with what the team called “a dead arm”. Detroit rested him for six weeks. He came back to toss one inning late in September but the arm wasn’t the same. He was included on the playoff roster but only faced six batters in the first round loss to the Orioles.

The next three seasons in Detroit, from 2015-17, Sanchez was a ghost. In his first start in ’15 his adrenaline was pumping and he fired 6 2/3 shutout innings for a win. He allowed 14 runs in his next two starts. Most alarmingly, enemy batters were suddenly hitting the ball very deep off Sanchie. Four times in ’15, Sanchez allowed three homers in a single game. He surrendered 29 home runs in only 157 innings until his final start in mid-August when he left the game in the third inning with shoulder pain. He didn’t pitch again that season.

Detroit was counting on Sanchez in 2016, filing him right behind Verlander in the rotation. He won his first two starts but he looked tentative, looked like a five-inning pitcher. There was no sign of the pitcher who could tear his way through a lineup, dominating with heat. Sanchez kept saying the right things, kept insisting he was healthy. But the results were terrible: four runs in five innings, seven runs in two innings, nine homers and a 6.12 ERA in six starts in May. Manager Brad Ausmus demoted him to the bullpen, and Sanchez showed that emotion again. He was pissed and he said so. The team met with him to unruffle his feathers.

Detroit ran Sanchez out for 17 starts in 2017, they still had his name on that big contract. He started the season in the bullpen, grumbling. In June the team moved him back in the tattered rotation. He pitched one good game, then two or three nightmares. That pattern repeated the rest of the year. He gave up five homers in three innings against Baltimore. His ERA soared over 7.00 and he left an early September start with shoulder soreness. Somehow, Sanchie gathered himself, and in his four starts in a Detroit uniform he pitched well, allowing three runs or less in each. He struck out menace Joe Mauer in that game, as sort of a goodbye gift.

The Twins gave Sanchie a chance in spring training as a non-roster invite. He pitched pretty well, but the team had other plans and let him go. The Braves, perhaps remembering that 17-K game five years ago, called him, gave him a spot on their 25-man roster for the start of the season. The 34-year old began the ’18 season in the pen, but unlike his time there with Detroit, he didn’t grouse over it. The Braves gave him s few starts in April, he pitched six shutout innings against the Cubs. He had a 2.48 ERA in five starts in May, as the Braves inched up the standings in the NL East.

Sanchie has developed a special bond with catcher Kurt Suzuki this season, the two forming a battery for most of his starts. He enters the playoffs with a string of eight straight quality starts, his season ERA settling at 2.83 in his 13th season. His a 5-6 inning pitcher now, he doesn’t pop that catcher’s mitt like he used to with his fastball, he may not kiss the baseball, but he’s back on the mound in a big game again, and Tiger fans will remember his days in Detroit when they see him take the ball in Game Two against the Dodgers on Friday night.