Minneapolis — Rather than any questions about his recovery, it appears Anibal Sanchez’s challenge is more an issue of time.
The Tigers and Sanchez are quietly giddy about his accelerating bounceback from a strained pectoralis. The issue is whether Sanchez, a right-handed fixture in the starting rotation, can make it back as a starter, or perhaps a reliever, before the regular season ends Sept. 28 or once the playoffs begin, should Detroit qualify.
“We’ve got to sit down and talk about it,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said Tuesday after Sanchez threw another 25-pitch bullpen session at Target Field, where the Tigers are playing the Twins in a three-game series that ends tonight. “We’ve got to see how much calendar’s left.
“It would be a tight time frame, for sure.”
Sanchez has not pitched since Aug. 8. With 11 games remaining in the regular season, a pitcher who all parties concede must build arm strength is looking at a stepping-stone regimen that will include another bullpen session today at Target Field.
If he passes inspection on a par with his Monday and Tuesday stints, Ausmus said Sanchez would be in line for a “50- or 60-pitch” simulated game against Tigers batters.
And if that goes well — no date has been suggested — Sanchez could be looking at rejoining the Tigers rotation or, at the very least, the bullpen, which Ausmus acknowledges could be a benefit when relief pitching has been a sore spot for much of this season.
“I don’t think that’s unreasonable,” Ausmus said of thoughts that Sanchez’s long layoff, and the bullpen dice roll, might meld to make Sanchez a handy option in a game’s later innings. “But in a perfect world, I’d much rather have Anibal Sanchez in the rotation rather than the bullpen.”
The speed with which a somber situation turned upbeat stunned even Sanchez. He said Tuesday that, even two weeks ago, his right-side muscle strain was not responding and that this season seemed all but lost.
But after this week’s outings, during which he has thrown all of his four pitches and with some of their traditional zip, Sanchez has experienced a reversal.
“Totally big difference,” he said as he sat in front of his locker, post-workout, perspiration still streaming from his face. “Huge difference.
“Right now I don’t feel anything (pain). Now I can focus on strengthening my arm.”
Sanchez, 30, was the American League ERA leader in 2013, finishing at 2.57 in 29 starts, when he went 14-8 and had an opposing batting average of .229. He had not been as effective this season in terms of his ERA (3.48). But more telling statistics suggest Sanchez has, if anything, been a tick better than in 2013.
His WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) is 1.096 compared with a slightly less sterling 1.154 in 2013. By a single percentage point (.228) he has a better opposing batting average than a year ago.
But he has not pitched in 40 days, since Aug. 8 at Toronto when he lasted 42/3 innings. He left after straining the pectoralis, a muscle area that extends from the chest to the shoulder.
Sanchez insists he isn’t concerned about his role if and when he is ready to pitch. He prefers starting but, he said, “I want to get ready to help the team if I can.”
He has pitched in relief, once. It was during his rookie season with the Marlins in 2006, when he relieved former Tigers pitcher Brian Moehler. He has 194 career starts.
The Tigers are in sync with Sanchez as far as preferences. They know the difference Sanchez can make as a starter and would welcome him in a playoff series alongside Max Scherzer, David Price, and Rick Porcello, with Justin Verlander’s ups and downs the only exception to what has been a steady year for Tigers starters.
But the Tigers are perhaps more vulnerable in a bullpen that has seen Joe Nathan and Joba Chamberlain have their moments. Sanchez could, conceivably, offer a stabilizing presence at a place commonly acknowledged as the Tigers’ soft spot.
However his role is decided, it’s a situation the Tigers will approach more comfortably if Sanchez’s September rebound continues.
The Tigers have a job opening for a skilled pitcher. They have a man in house they hope to welcome back.
Tigers at Twins
First pitch: 8:10 tonight, Target Field, Minneapolis
LHP David Price (3-3, 3.70), Tigers: Settling in since he embraced the bold new world of the Motor City. Had some rough innings in back-to-back starts, but otherwise has pitched in premier fashion.
RHP Kyle Gibson (11-11, 4.78), Twins: Can be very good with his power arsenal. Can also, in tandem with his rookie status, sometimes lose his way. Tigers will face a good repertoire tonight.