Bradenton, Fla. — The plot thickens.
Anibal Sanchez, his $16.8 million salary notwithstanding, came into his start against the Pirates here Saturday trailing Matthew Boyd in the battle for the fifth spot in the Tigers rotation.
“Matt Boyd is keeping the heat on everyone,” manager Brad Ausmus said before the game.
Sanchez has responded with a little heat of his own.
He pitched six no-hit innings in the Tigers’ 5-4 spring loss, raising his consecutive scoreless innings streak to 14, dating back to a mechanical fix he made with pitching coach Rich Dubee at the beginning of this month.
“Just when you think Boyd has separated himself, Sanchy goes out and throws six no-hit innings,” Ausmus said. “It’s a good problem to have, no question about that.”
Over the last three starts, Sanchez has allowed two hits with 16 strikeouts (six of them Saturday) and one walk.
“Thank God, everything I’ve been working with Dubee on is working,” Sanchez said. “The location, today the sequencing was pretty good. I was able to put the ball in the strike zone. Today, I had really good communication with (catcher James) McCann and we had a really good sequence on every hitter.”
It’s been a complete transformation. In his starts before the fix, he was tagged for 15 hits, 11 runs and four home runs in 5⅔ innings. Since moving his arm farther from his head on his delivery, his command has been more precise and the movement on his pitches has been sharper. The biggest change is he's been able to command the top and bottom of the strike zone.
Velocity hasn’t changed (89-92 mph) but with the deception in his delivery — which he’s always had — and the new-found late finish, he’s getting swings-and-misses with his fastball (seven of his 12 on Saturday).
“He’s got a little bit of finish on it in the zone now — 91-92 probably looks like 93-94,” Ausmus said.
Sanchez threw 71 pitches, 47 strikes.
“The Pirates, for the most part had a lot of big-league hitters in the lineup and he looked strong into the third time through the order,” Ausmus said. “And they didn’t take a lot of good swings on him at any point in the lineup. It makes for a tough decision and we have to make it within the week.”
Sanchez won’t go near that topic. He won’t even call it a competition.
“I don’t feel that,” he said. “I don’t feel any competition; I can’t compete with something that I can’t control. If I could control that, then my answer would be different. The manager and the general manager get paid to control that. I am just going to focus on pitching.”
Here’s two possible scenarios:
■ If Boyd won the fifth spot in the rotation, then Sanchez would probably start the season working in long relief. He would essentially be the No. 6 starter, insurance against an injury to another starter.
That would leave Mike Pelfrey ($8 million) off the staff completely. It would be highly atypical for the Tigers to carry two long relievers in the bullpen for starter depth.
“It’s hard to do,” Ausmus said. “It puts a lot of stress on the other guys down there. You only use depth starters in long relief roles, and you can go a week without using a long reliever. All of a sudden, the guys who pitch the sixth, seventh and eighth innings — you are using them all the time and the other guys aren’t used at all.”
■ If Sanchez is the No. 5 starter, Boyd — whose performance this spring has been unassailable (21-0 strikeouts-to-walks) — would likely start the year in Toledo. A young pitcher’s development would be better served if he stayed on a starter’s routine.
That, potentially, could allow the Tigers to keep Pelfrey as the depth starter in the 'pen.
But Ausmus wasn’t providing any clues. He said no decision had been made.
“We’re in the business of winning baseball games,” he said. “We’re going to make decisions that help us win baseball games. It will sort itself out in the next week.”