Lakeland, Fla. — Anibal Sanchez earned this one.
“I feel good,” he said. “I feel really good.”
Hit hard in his first three outings, he has worked tirelessly with pitching coach Rich Dubee this spring, trying to regain at least a semblance of his form. His dedication to the plan was such that on Monday, a day he was not scheduled to work, he drove three hours to West Palm Beach to throw a bullpen session.
Nice when you get some tangible reward for your efforts, and they don’t get any more tangible than this: He threw four perfect innings, 12 straight outs, in the Tigers’ 8-6 spring win Wednesday over the Braves.
“I think I need to continue working,” he said. “I think everything was perfect, really good today, and my pitching coach is working a lot. We need to continue working. Today is one step.”
Dubee spotted something in Sanchez’s delivery that may have been causing his inability to get the ball down in the zone. His hand, as he was coming through his delivery, was too close to his head. The two have worked to get the hand farther from his head, which would create a more fluid motion, less arm drag and more extension — and eventually more life on his pitches.
“Just a little bit,” Sanchez said of the delivery change. “It’s not something crazy, not a big change for me. Just a small touch, and I tried to keep the ball in front of me every time.”
His fastball was registering at 91-92 and touching 93 — which is the same as in his three previous starts. The difference was the location of those pitches and the movement on his secondary pitches.
Against a Braves lineup that featured Brandon Phillips, Freddie Freeman, Matt Kemp, Nick Markakis and Kurt Suzuki, he got five strikeouts, four of them looking. He was also getting swings and misses on his four-seam fastball.
“His fastball had more life up in the zone,” said manager Brad Ausmus, who caught Sanchez’s bullpen in West Palm Beach. “He was getting swings and misses. I think he was very pleased. It was certainly a step in the right direction.”
Sanchez, who is in the last guaranteed year of his contract with the Tigers ($16 million), is fighting for a spot in the rotation with Matthew Boyd and Mike Pelfrey. Boyd, who has had a sensational spring to this point, is presumed to be the frontrunner.
But Sanchez isn’t going down without a fight.
“Every day you need to build on,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been in the big leagues, how many years you can pitch. I think every year you need to build up. … I think I just need to continue working. I’m not going to take this outing like that’s perfect. I need to continue working.”
The other side of the pitching coin for the Tigers was right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, who despite throwing 40 pitches did not get out of the first inning.
He gave up four runs, but for the second straight start, the consensus among coaches and Zimmermann himself was, his stuff was better than the results.
“To be honest, I can't even be mad at that start,” Zimmermann said. “I was making my pitches. I feel amazing. the ball is coming out good. The velocity is good on everything I'm throwing. Just, foul ball, foul ball, foul ball and the count got up. Just bad luck I guess.”
He threw 40 pitches in the first inning, 15 of them were fouled off.
“I thought I struck Kemp out,” he said. “Next pitch, ball away and he throws his bat at it — double down the line. Phillips gets a swinging bunt. Freeman hits a one-hopper through the shift. We got three guys on that side and he somehow finds a hole.
“The only real bad pitch I made was the 0-2 curve to (Kurt) Suzuki (two-run homer).”
He was also displeased with umpire Vic Carapazza’s strike zone.
“At the bottom of the zone and they’re calling balls,” he said. “I don't know if this so-called raising the strike zone is going into effect or what. I felt like I was throwing the ball well and it was coming out good. So, I can't be mad.”
His fastball velocity was 92-94 mph. His slider was 86-87 and his curve was 80.
“It was similar to last outing,” Ausmus said. “He looked fine, just a little trouble with command. I just don’t think he’s sharp yet.”
After Zimmermann left the game, he went to the bullpen and threw another 15 to 20 pitches.
“Yeah, I'd like to get the up and downs and get four innings in, but I guess the only thing I can take out of this is my pitch count is getting up,” he said. “I need to throw more innings … I feel strong, man. That's the only thing I care about.”