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Anibal Sanchez's Toledo project gets off to rocky start

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Detroit Tigers pitcher Anibal Sanchez throws for the Toledo Mud Hens against the Norfolk Tides.

Toledo, Ohio — In the nearly five years he has been a Tigers employee, one wonders if Anibal Sanchez’s face has ever glowed so brightly, or for such a length of time, as when he talked Tuesday about his decision to pitch at Triple A Toledo.

“I feel amazing,” Sanchez said, moments after he had stepped from a treadmill in the Mud Hens clubhouse at Fifth Third Field, and checked into his new locker a few hours before Toledo played Roanoke. “I never feel that good before, especially because I make the decision myself. I make the decision for the team.”

He was speaking about Monday night’s news. Sanchez, a one-time Tigers pitching jewel, had decided after an anguished spring to get minor-league maintenance in hopes he can yet pitch effectively in Detroit.

It’s likely to be a process, maybe longer than any of the parties prefer.

Sanchez had a glorious first inning Tuesday, striking out three Norfolk batters on 13 pitches in his first-ever appearance in Mud Hen colors.

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The next inning was more along the lines of games Sanchez has endured the past two years: two home runs, a double off the right-center field fence, a walk, all worth three runs, two of which were earned because of an infield error. His fastball was clocking in around 90-91 mph.

He pitched to a pair of batters in the third, getting a ground-out and allowing another walk. And then he was gone, having hit his 45-pitch limit in a game the Mud Hens lost to Roanoke, 6-2.

“He was around the plate, he got to his pitch count, we’ll move from there,” said Toledo manager Mike Rojas, a one-time Tigers bullpen coach on manager Jim Leyland’s staff.

“Remember, he’s being stretched out,” Rojas said, reminding interviewers that Sanchez’s shifts as a Tigers reliever are now giving way to more extended work as a starter. “He’s been brought down here to be stretched.

“Hopefully, it continues to get better.”

Rojas repeated something he had said earlier: That there was real honor in Sanchez deciding on returning to the minors. And, in fact, it was a stunner, Monday night’s announcement, considering Sanchez’s options. He could have continued to work from the Tigers bullpen, hoping to reclaim command and authority with four pitches that at times have been fine, but too often the past three seasons have sailed into outfield seats for home runs.

Anibal Sanchez leaves Tuesday night's game for the Toledo Mud Hens after reaching his 45-pitch limit.

He might also have waited for a lousy spring to reach a point where the Tigers would have no choice but to write him severance pay for the remainder of his contract: $21.8 million to cover guaranteed pay and options for the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

Sanchez, after such a moment of finality, could then have signed with another team. It might have made returning to the minors easier for a 33-year-old pitcher whose pride is deep and who sees his job as nothing less than professional vocation.

That he could refuse minor-league duty is a contract option for players with more than five years of big-league experience.

But he has a different view and philosophy. Entirely different.

“The only reason I take this (assignment) is because I wanted to help the best I can,” Sanchez said before Tuesday’s game. “Not only if the team need a starter, but anything where I can help the team.”

Sanchez departed Fifth Third Field after his Tuesday turn and did not meet with media afterward.

But he had said earlier Tuesday that he hopes at Toledo to reacquaint himself with a rhythm and job fulfillment he rarely has known since times began to sour in 2015. He understands it is about pitching with a sense that hitters can, and will, be defeated. That his fastball, which still cruises at 92-93, can be delivered to necessary spots. That his curveball, slider, and change-up can likewise be mixed and tossed with a superiority.

The Tigers acknowledge they, too, are a bit floored, and just as much are inspired, by Sanchez’s decision to wear Triple A togs.

“Anibal has been great,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said in a Tuesday text message. “He understands the situation and has handled everything like a pro. He has shown true desire and sacrifice to get better. That’s why we decided to let him go to Toledo and see what happens.”

Sanchez says it was the collective boost he got from Avila, manager Brad Ausmus, pitching coach Rich Dubee — all the Tigers bosses and consultants — that made him realize Toledo could be his ticket to rediscovering some of that old Sanchez savvy.

“We all tried to do our best,” Sanchez said, realizing his 11-game ERA of 9.00, with nine home runs allowed in 21 innings, was, well, unsustainable — in his and the Tigers’ view.

“Now, I’m not gonna just try. I’m going to do it.”

Rojas got Monday’s news bulletin from Dave Littlefield, the Tigers vice president of player development. The Mud Hens, Littlefield said, were about to gain a new starter.

“That’s the pro he is,” Rojas said of Sanchez earlier Tuesday, as he rested on a step in the Mud Hens dugout, watching his team warm up for its evening tussle. “But it’s because he cares. He wants to be good.”

There are no detailed orders accompanying Sanchez to Toledo. There is no particular mechanical mission in terms of his delivery or release point. Rather, there is simply an opportunity for him, with the Mud Hens, to start regularly and rendezvous once again with a routine he knew during more sterling times.

“Thank God I’m healthy,” Sanchez said, his grin still approaching 1,000 watts. “I’m good. Right now, I don’t know what will happen. But I feel really, really good.”