June 18, 2014 at 9:38 pm

Terry Foster

Sneaky Anibal Sanchez steps into Tigers' stopper role for now

Anibal Sanchez has emerged as the Tigers' most reliable, and perhaps their best, starting pitcher. He's 3-2 with a 2.44 ERA, though he missed time with a stint on the disabled list. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Detroit — The bad news for the Tigers is they lost their third straight game to the hot Kansas City Royals in what was supposed to be a showdown series. The Royals padded their lead to 1½ games over the Tigers, who until Tuesday had been in first place every day since July of last season.

Now here is the good news.

Anibal Sanchez is on the mound Thursday for the fourth and final game of the series. If the Tigers need to win one game he is their best bet now.

It isn’t Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer, who gave up a combined 17 runs and 22 hits against Kansas City. It isn’t Rick Porcello, the guy some believed had Cy Young potential earlier in the season.

It’s the guy you don’t think of because fourth starter Anibal Sanchez stays under the radar and bashes opponents with a sneaky fastball and nice curveball. He even has two change-ups. One is a regular change-up and he has one called the butterfly that actually floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.

Quick! Which Tigers starter had the lowest ERA on the team last season and is doing it again? It was not Verlander, the man they used to call Ace. It was not Scherzer who won the Cy Young last season.

It is sneaky Sanchez, the man who gives the Tigers the best chance to win when he is on the mound.

Sanchez (3-2, 2.44 ERA) is no longer a luxury that made the Tigers Las Vegas favorites to win the World Series. He is no longer depth. Sanchez must now become a stopper and a guy who must win because the big two have failed so often in devastating fashion.

No pressure

Since coming off the disabled list with a blister, Sanchez has been the Tigers best pitcher. You could make a case he was the best guy before the injury. His record is an indicator of a man that has more bad luck than bad performances. He often is not rewarded for good performances.

Sanchez must win games and he knows it even though he downplays it. He said he feels no pressure to win because it seems the rest of the starting pitching has faltered.

“No,” he said emphatically. “I think every five days I just do my job. I don’t feel any kind of pressure because of other things. I know we will come out of this soon.”

The question is when?

Fans rejoiced when Scherzer pitched his first complete game of his career, a four-hit shutout last week against the Chicago White Sox. However, in his last six outings Scherzer has given up 30 runs and 53 hits in 3913 innings.

In his last seven starts the basepaths look like Grand Central Station during rush hour when Verlander is on the mound. He has allowed 83 base runners in just 4323 innings and has a 7.83 ERA. There does not seem to be relief in sight.

While we are waiting Sanchez is the guy.

“When Sanchee is on the mound I know we have a chance to win a game,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “He is one of the best in the game.”

Guessing game

He also has one of the most talked about pitches in the game. There is a change-up that travels around 85 mph. Then there is the butterfly that flutters between 73-75 mph. It really keeps batters off balance. And that is Sanchez’s game. He is not going to overpower hitters. He keeps them guessing.

And they are guessing wrong. He’s given up just one home run this season and his WHIP of 0.94 compares to Verlander’s during his Cy Young season three years ago.

“I think the location is the most important thing for me,” Sanchez said. “If I am healthy I can make a good pitch against any hitter. I am feeling better now. Every outing makes me work for the little things at this point. Now I can throw everything hard for strikes.”

He can also throw softies for strikes. Sometimes they appear to be strikes before darting out of the strike zone like a thief in the night. That is what makes sneaky Sanchez the guy to watch out for the rest of the season. He must keep the ship right until the main men get their games together.

He will do it quietly and without much fanfare. That is why he is sneaky Sanchez. You hardly notice him until you really need him — like now.

“We have everything,” he said. “We have the power and we have everything. I just want to keep it close and start waiting for that to happen.”

We are all waiting.


More Terry Foster