Detroit — The ovation meant a lot to Anibal Sanchez. His performance, his third straight strong start since returning from his self-imposed demotion to Toledo, meant a lot to his teammates.
It was the win, though, that meant the most to everyone involved.
“I feel good because the team won,” said Sanchez after the Tigers scored three times in the bottom of the seventh to beat the Indians 7-4 in Game 1 of a doubleheader Saturday.
Sanchez walked off to a standing ovation, and with a 4-2 lead, with one out in the seventh inning.
“I have always said those fans deserve a lot,” Sanchez said. “I have been one of the guys here who has given up a lot of runs and caused a lot of their frustration. It was really nice to do something to help us win a game and make them happy today.”
The Tigers collectively are approaching this one rung at a time. After their June swoon, they have dug quite a hole for themselves. But, winning for the fourth time in five games, they seem resolute on climbing out.
“We’ve got to do it the rest of the year,” Ian Kinsler said. “You can never take a break in this game. It’s constant. It’s every day.”
The cheers for Sanchez had barely died down in the top of the seventh inning when Carlos Santana swatted a 3-2 fastball from reliever Daniel Stumpf into the seats in right-center field, a two-run blast tying the game suddenly, 4-4.
The Tigers didn’t flinch, answering back with three runs off reliever Bryan Shaw in the bottom half of the inning.
“That’s what good teams do,” Kinsler said. “They respond when the other team makes a run. They answer.”
Nick Castellanos, who had three hits, spanked an RBI triple to the right-center field gap to grab the lead back. Mikie Mahtook, after a fighting out of a two-strike count, brought Castellanos home with a single and James McCann singled home the third run.
Castellanos ended up a home run shy of the cycle.
Bruce Rondon and Justin Wilson locked it down, pitching scoreless eighth and ninth innings, respectively.
The Tigers, playing without Justin Upton (soreness in his right side), had built the initial lead with a four-run uprising off Indians starter Josh Tomlin in the third and fourth innings. J.D. Martinez and Miguel Cabrera hit back-to-back home runs in the third — No. 14 for Martinez and 11 for Cabrera, who has hit three in his last four games.
Jose Iglesias then rapped a two-run double in the fourth.
“This was about Sanchy,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “He was outstanding. That’s three good starts in a row, and the last two have been extremely good.”
For six innings, Sanchez had the Indians utterly befuddled with his assortment of breaking balls and varied off-speed pitches. He was touched for two hits, both in the third inning when the Indians scratched out their first run. In one stretch between the third and sixth innings, he retired 10 of 11, the only blemish a one-out walk in the fourth.
“The biggest thing is, he’s commanding his fastball on both sides of the plate and up in the zone,” Ausmus said. “But he is mixing it up, too, using his curveball and change-up. His change-up has been his go-to off-speed pitch.”
But those off-speed and breaking pitches, regardless of how expertly he varies the speeds and locations, aren’t as effective unless he convinces the Indians hitters to honor his fastball. Thus, nine of his first 12 pitches were well-located fastballs, 90-92 mph. His ability to command the fastball unlocked the rest of his arsenal.
Between his curveball, slider, split-fingered fastball and change-up, Sanchez’s velocity range was 63 mph on his slow change-up (he also has a firmer one in the low 80s), to 92 mph on his fastball.
“Today I can say was my best outing so far,” said Sanchez, who’s ERA in his three starts since coming back is 3.12. “It was the first day I was able to locate all my pitches. I worked really good with my fastball, after that I can use my breaking ball. And when I hit my spots with the breaking ball, I can do more in any situations.”
He was throwing sinkers inside for strikes to left-handed hitters and painting the outside corner with two-seamer, four-seamers and cutters to right-handed hitters. All the while mixing in the change-ups and curveballs.
Is it any wonder that for most of the game he had the Indians hitting off their front foot — as evidenced by the 12 weak fly balls or pop-ups.
“It’s a big difference in speed from the 60s (mph) to 91-92,” he said. “That’s a good distance and I can really get their hitters off-balance.
But they are good-hitting team and it’s not easy to keep them off-balance – which you saw (in the seventh inning).”
With one out in the seventh, Sanchez gave up a ringing double to Jose Ramirez and an RBI single by Lonnie Chisenhall. It was the most solid contact Sanchez had allowed all game, and at 102 pitches, all there was left for him to do was accept his ovation and the hugs and high-fives from his teammates.
“He’s a guy everybody in the clubhouse cares about and likes, so they are happy for him,” Ausmus said. “They are also happy he’s pitching well because it serves them well as a team.
“But a lot of credit goes to Sanchy for going down to Toledo, getting those four starts and trying to build back up and gain some confidence.”
Sanchez isn’t quite ready to pronounce himself all the way back. As Kinsler said, the process is constant, never ending.
“I feel good right now,” Sanchez said. “Thank God I got this opportunity again. I am so grateful to God for where I am right now. I am just going to continue to work. Nothing is guaranteed here and nothing is guaranteed tomorrow.
“I have to continue working. It’s a long season.”