Baltimore — Anibal Sanchez allowed two singles and a walk through five innings against the Orioles Saturday.
He got through five innings on an economical 63 pitches. His pitches were still crisp. He was still inducing soft contract.
Then came his nemesis — the bloody sixth inning.
After the Tigers took a 2-0 lead on a 462-foot blast by Miguel Cabrera, Sanchez struck out Manny Machado looking. Still looking sharp. Then Adam Jones ripped a double down the line in left. He got Chris Davis to fly meekly to right. Two outs, no worries.
Mark Trumbo, though, smashed a line drive directly at and eventually over the head of Steven Moya.
Tough play, even for an experienced left fielder, but one Moya makes had his first step not been in.
Next hitter was Matt Wieters. Twice Sanchez got him to ground out on sinkers. This time, Wieters hit a sinker, on a 3-2 count, over the wall in right center.
“That pitch to Wieters wasn’t a bad pitch,” catcher James McCann said. “He just happened to get to it.”
Sanchez opted not to speak to the media afterwards, but the sixth inning has bedeviled him. In eight starts, he’s made it to the sixth inning six times and allowed seven runs and three homers.
“It’s almost like the sixth inning is a wall he’s hitting,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “But his pitch count was down (58). He wasn’t tired. His strength was good. His velocity was good. There was no sign of deterioration.”
Sanchez is the Tigers’ No. 3 starter. Ausmus cannot assume he’s going to crumble in the sixth inning of every start, especially when he’s throwing the ball as well as he was.
“He can’t be a five-inning pitcher,” Ausmus said. “But the bigger problem is, even if you saw him struggling after five — which there was no sign of — our bullpen is so taxed, I don’t know how we would get through those next four innings.”
As if to validate his point, the Tigers bullpen yielded five runs in the eighth inning.
“Our bullpen’s been used,” Ausmus said. “We were trying to stay away from some guys (Alex Wilson and Justin Wilson). And I just think, you watch (Sanchez’s) stuff, a starting pitcher at the major league level, when he’s at 63 pitches, you think they are fine.
“And he was fine. He gave up those runs, but he was cruising along.”
It was yet another damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Those seem to come up almost nightly when a team struggles as badly as the Tigers are now.