Tigers pitcher Joba Chamberlain jokes around during player introductions before Sunday's game. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
Detroit — During an 18-year career as a catcher in the majors, Brad Ausmus saw his share of good pitchers.
From Andy Benes and Trevor Hoffman with the Padres to Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte with the Astros, Ausmus has seen some of the top starters and relievers from behind the catcher’s mask. But now as Tigers manager, Ausmus has a stable of top-tier pitching with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan.
With the Tigers’ recent slump of just four wins in 17 games, one of the few bright spots was Anibal Sanchez, who was coming off a stint on the disabled list because of a finger blister. Prior to Sunday’s game, Sanchez was 1-0 in his previous three starts, allowing just 10 hits in 221⁄3 innings.
Even with Verlander and Scherzer on the staff, along with a stellar start to the season from Rick Porcello, Ausmus said Sanchez might be peaking among all the starters — and Ausmus wouldn’t mind catching for him.
“Since he’s come off the DL, he’s been outstanding. The reason I wish I was catching him is that he has so many weapons,” Ausmus said Sunday. “He’s got so many ways to attack hitters and as a catcher you feel like you can put any sign down and you’ve got a chance to get the hitter out.
“The stuff itself — the pitches, the movement, the action — is the best on the staff.”
In nine starts, Sanchez is 2-2 with a 2.15 ERA; as the other Tigers starters have had more struggles in the past few weeks, Sanchez has been able to distinguish himself and help ward off the skid.
“Certainly recently (he’s been best). Last year people made cases he was one of the best guys on our staff,” catcher Alex Avila said. “His stuff is flat-out nasty and he’s completely unpredictable. As a hitter, it would be extremely difficult to face him and I’m just glad he’s on our side.”
Sanchez has managed to maintain his consistency and get deep into games, helping to preserve the bullpen, which has been taxed recently with a few shorter outings from the starters.
“The thing with him is he’s got great offspeed stuff and when he’s commanding his fastball, his offspeed stuff is really the pitches that are going to get guys out,” Avila said. “When he’s not, it’s one of those things that hitters think about.”
Sanchez had a somewhat limited pitch count in previous outings because of the finger injury, but Ausmus indicated the restrictions are now gone and Sanchez, who took a loss in his last outing after throwing 107 pitches through seven innings, might get a chance to pitch later into games.
“Probably so, now that he’s on his fifth start off the DL,” Ausmus said. “I certainly would feel much more comfortable with him getting up to 120 pitches more so than I did two starts ago.”
Although the Tigers’ starting rotation is viewed as one of the best in the majors, the bullpen has been a different concern for Ausmus. The relief pitching was maligned early in the season but turned things around, keyed by Nathan, Chamberlain and Ian Krol.
Part of the reason for the Tigers’ 27-12 start through May 18 was the play of the bullpen. Nathan, as the veteran closer, was the cornerstone, but has gone through more struggles of late. Nathan (2-2, 7.04 ERA in 25 appearances), looked to be starting to turn things around with an impressive outing in a non-save situation Friday against the Red Sox, where he allowed just one hit and had a strikeout in an inning.
Looking to build on the good outing, Nathan pitched another inning Saturday night, but gave up two runs on four hits and threw 32 pitches. Prior to the 4-13 slump, Nathan converted 10 straight save opportunities; in the four save chances since, he’s blown two and converted two.
Ausmus, though, isn’t making too big a deal out of it.
“I’m not overly concerned; obviously the results aren’t what we want out of Joe but the truth is we need Joe Nathan to pitch well,” Ausmus said. “We need Joe Nathan to close games, so we’re going to have to find a way to work through this.”
As a former catcher, Ausmus is looking to find some way to help Nathan through the recent struggles, but that doesn’t include giving him a few games out of the closer’s role. Ausmus didn’t rule out using Nathan in other non-save situations to try to help get him back on track.
“Generally, you don’t get through a pitching or hitting slump by sitting on your hands — that’s why we got him in there the last couple of days, hoping we could help him work through this,” Ausmus said. “(Friday) worked well, but (Saturday) not as well. We need this guy to pitch for us.”