August 3, 2014 at 8:32 pm

Bob Wojnowski

In a rotation of Cy Young winners, Tigers' Anibal Sanchez takes a back seat to nobody

Detroit — Maybe it was a quirk of timing, or the presence of a decimated opponent. But right on cue, the Tigers starters have launched their much-anticipated game of whatever-you-do-I-can-do-better.

Anibal Sanchez was dominant Sunday, slightly better than Rick Porcello the night before, who was slightly better than Justin Verlander the night before. The opponent was the battered Rockies, so this should be considered an appetizer, not a meal.

The Tigers completed the sweep with a 4-0 victory and head to New York, where they’ll throw the AL’s last three Cy Young winners at the Yankees. And you’d better write the name of the Tigers’ ace in chalk these days, because the competitive jockeying could be amazing, not that it matters right now who pitches when.

Everyone knows the impact of David Price, who makes his first start as a Tiger Tuesday night, after current ace Max Scherzer goes Monday night. Price’s arrival should provide more than an energetic buzz. The Tigers have a five-man rotation so decorated and daunting, it has to ratchet the internal competition, even if it’s unspoken and practically unprecedented.

Staff rivalry

Sanchez looked as fierce as he has all season, holding the Rockies to two hits, with 12 strikeouts and zero walks. It was a significant moment when he finally made it through the seventh inning, and he pumped his fist as the crowd of 41,487 roared.

“Personally, there’s no competition,” Sanchez said. “I’m glad we got Price. We could compare our rotation with the best of all time. I remember Atlanta when they had those three big monsters. We got a pretty good five starters, and let’s see what the other teams are gonna think about them.”

Sanchez offered a sly smile, and it seems like the Tigers and A’s are always sending not-so-subtle cross-country messages, doesn’t it? The Tigers (61-47) still have the little bookkeeping issue of wrapping up the division, but Price is here for a reason, and it’s not to sell more jerseys. The Tigers’ touted rotation ranks a modest 13th in the majors with a 3.77 ERA, and it should be better.

When Price arrived Saturday, he chuckled and said, “I feel like I walked in the clubhouse and it was an All-Star game.” Based on credentials, the Tigers’ rotation could rank among the best. But performance must meet (or exceed) expectation, and that’s where Sanchez is a key.

The right-hander is masterful changing speeds and locations, but he entered Sunday’s game with a seventh-inning ERA of 14.73, and hadn’t made it through the fateful frame in his past three outings. For all the talent among the starters, stamina is important, especially with a suspect bullpen.

Price has pitched through the seventh inning in 13 consecutive starts, and he figures the stiff staff competition will be a good thing.

“I hope so, that’s what pushes us,” Price said. “I think that kind of needs to be our mind-set. Everybody needs to try to one-up the guy that pitched before them, and if we do that, it can get pretty scary.”

'Best pure stuff'

When Sanchez does it, he can be very scary. He doesn’t have the Cy Young hardware that Price, Scherzer and Verlander possess, but he was the AL ERA champ last season. He’d been knocked around lately and is 8-5 with a 3.37 ERA. Against the Rockies, he used his fastball more than ever, as if testing time was over.

“I’ve said it before — Sanchez might have the best pure stuff on our team,” Brad Ausmus said. “He’s got a lot of weapons he can throw for strikes. And the way he used the fastball today should be a blueprint for how he attacks lineups in the future.”

It capped a dominant pitching weekend for the Tigers, even if most of the Rockies hitters are barely recognizable outside their immediate families. Coincidence that three terrific outings immediately followed the Price trade? Probably.

But don’t discount the healthy rivalry between hotly competitive stars such as Scherzer, Verlander and Price, as well as the blossoming Porcello and savvy Sanchez. There are real stakes, although it’s silly to start speculating. But if the Tigers somehow slip past the wreckage in their division and sneak into the playoffs (ahem), one of the starters will have to take a spot in the bullpen.

If that’s a problem, it’s one of those first-world problems everyone else would love to have. There’s nothing wrong with stoking the embers, and reminding this team that only one goal matters.

“I don’t know if I’d be willing to say there’s an unspoken competition at this point,” Ausmus said. “David is still getting to know his teammates. But it doesn’t bother me if that’s where it heads. … I think it injects a little energy into the team.”

Sanchez showed feisty energy with his liveliest fastball of the season. Comerica Park was packed all weekend, and when the Tigers return from their nine-game trip, it’ll be packed again. Price noticed, and marveled at what he called the “carnival” of fans who swarmed the players’ parking garage Saturday night.

Price has stirred a buzz, no doubt. And the best part is, whatever he does, the Tigers have candidates capable of doing the same.

Tigers starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez is congratulated in the dugout after ending the seventh inning. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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