'Baseball's a funny game': Sanchez continues turnaround in Tiger win

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — Either of two locations Thursday would have told you about Anibal Sanchez’s summer. And why, apart from the kind of hot and hazy days when teenagers tend to first fall in love, this particular July is destined to be remembered dreamily by a 33-year-old pitcher.

Begin with the mound at Comerica Park: Sanchez threw six sparkling innings Thursday, striking out eight, and winning his first game since Aug. 23 of last year, as he helped the Tigers knock out the Giants, 6-2, all while most of the 27,210 who parked in a seat on a hot July day found themselves swept up by the increasingly giddy story of Sanchez’s comeback.

Move next to the Tigers post-game clubhouse: There, Sanchez stood, in pink shorts, red shoes, and a white Polo shirt. His hair was wet from a shower, his face aglow with the ecstasy a big-leaguer uniquely feels when he has performed well and his team, largely because of his sterling work, has won a game.

BOX SCORE: Tigers 6, Giants 2

“I understand what they felt about me when I was struggling,” said Sanchez, the Tigers starter whose mechanics and pitches became so tattered earlier this year he opted, of his own volition, to put on a minor-league uniform at Triple-A Toledo.

He was talking about Comerica’s fans. About the Tigers galaxy, at large. About earlier contempt fans had built toward a pitcher who appeared to have lost skills that a few years earlier had made him a Tigers showpiece.

Thursday, he felt something akin to fans hugging him from those Comerica seats as they joined in what has become one of baseball’s more stirring midseason stories.

“He might be the first pitcher to get Comeback Player of the Year in one season,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, deadpan as usual, and putting into perspective how Sanchez and his bag full of pitches has turned a once-frightful situation for the Tigers into, at least for now, a fun fest.

“It surprises me a little bit,” Ausmus said after Sanchez allowed only two hits through five innings and still had a shutout rolling in the sixth. “But baseball’s a funny game.

“He’s made a 180-degree turnaround. He’s showing he’s a big-league pitcher right now.”

Sanchez has now thrown four strong games since he returned following his month-long Toledo tour. He put away the Giants Thursday with his customary quiver full of pitches that made catcher James McCann glad he had at least five fingers.

Two-seam and four-seam fastballs. Slider. Curveball. Split-finger. Change-up. And a “butterfly” change-up that floats in at 72 or so mph and further perplexes opposing hitters, or at least did Thursday, as it has tended to do since Sanchez volunteered for the bushes.

It was a sorcerer’s assortment of servings he threw 93 times in his six innings of prize-winning work.

Asked to name the single biggest gain from his voluntary sabbatical with the Mud Hens, Sanchez thought for a moment and said:

“I think I believe in God,” he said, “that he put the tools with me to learn how to pitch again.”

Not that Thursday’s game was Sanchez’s script, exclusively.

The Tigers weren’t overly disappointed when news arrived shortly before game time that Giants starter Johnny Cueto was being kayoed by an ear infection.

That left matters to a reliever, Chris Stratton, who admirably sweated through 6.2 innings a day after Giants manager Bruce Bochy had used six pitchers in Wednesday’s nervous win over the Tigers.

Stratton, though, couldn’t avoid certain run-scoring realities associated with Ausmus’ lineup. And facts are fact when it comes to Nick Castellanos, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton, and even Alex Presley, who was back following a concussion and who chipped in Thursday with a pair of RBI singles.

Not to mention the day’s surprise celebrant, rookie Dixon Machado, who in the second inning cracked his first big-league homer, a high-flying shot beyond Comerica’s left-field fence.

The Tigers had taken a quick 1-0 lead when Upton walked with two gone in the first. As Stratton fixated on Cabrera, Upton stole second, then scored when Cabrera slapped an RBI single up the middle.

Castellanos led off the second with his sixth triple of 2017, which came on a drive that rocked and rolled its way to the left-center field fence. Castellanos scored on Presley’s initial single two batters before Machado drilled his inaugural big-league homer that put Sanchez and the Tigers on top, 4-0.

Upton had a leadoff double in the third and scored on Presley’s follow-up RBI single to make it 5-0. After the Giants got a pair against Sanchez in the sixth, the Tigers added their grand finale when J.D. Martinez singled, hustled to second on a wild pitch, and scored on Castellanos’ single to center in the eighth.

Sanchez by then was safe in the dugout, savoring one more step in what is becoming a fairly astounding big-league bounce-back.

Shane Greene was perfect in the seventh, with a pair of strikeouts, and Bruce Rondon had an almost identical eighth, also with two whiffs. Justin Wilson’s ninth was, likewise, immaculate as he had a 1-2-3 closeout that is now part of a multi-game, 16-batter run in which he has put away all 16 batters.

Like their friend, Sanchez, Tigers relievers had reason Thursday to feel a certain satisfaction as the team dressed and packed for a weekend series at Cleveland.

But a starter who feels as if he has been reborn as an important big-league pitcher had a heart even more aflutter Thursday. And no one in the clubhouse was going to deny Sanchez his moment. They all offered handshakes and pats on the back, thrilled for a turnaround a Tigers team uniquely understood.


Twitter: @Lynn_Henning