DETROIT — Anibal Sanchez’s mound mastery hasn’t gained much national notice because the Detroit Tigers had developed a nasty habit of not supporting him offensively.
Prior to Saturday afternoon’s 12-9 win over the Minnesota Twins, which featured Sanchez allowing three runs on four hits in 6 1/3 innings, Detroit had wasted Sanchez’s brilliance. He allowed three runs over his previous three starts, covering 22 1/3 innings, but came away with no decision all three times.
But this time — with Victor Martinez and rookie third baseman Eugenio Suarez clubbing homers in a seven-run third inning that made the game bullpen-proof — Sanchez could be sure a "W" was going into his record column.
When he departed during the seventh inning with a nine-run lead, the 41,498 at Comerica Park rose to give him a standing ovation. He clapped for them, pounding his hand into his glove. And then Sanchez tipped his cap to the fans.
"We need to do something extra for the fans," Sanchez said. "They give a lot of energy to us and that support is good for me."
He’s one of the best in the game.
Sanchez has started 11 games this year, and has yet to allow more than three runs in any of them. He has a 2.44 ERA that would rank seventh in the American League if he’d thrown another 1 1/3 innings at this point. Pitchers must have as many innings pitched as their team has games played to qualify, and Sanchez has 62 2/3 innings while Detroit has played 64 games.
He appears up to the challenge of repeating as the league’s ERA leader, having finished on top with a 2.57 in 2013. Nobody has done that in the AL since Boston’s Pedro Martinez led at 2.26 in 2002 and 2.22 in 2003.
Doing so would vault Sanchez into Cy Young Award contention if he can win 10 to 12 games over the last 98 games of the season. Sanchez is only 3-2, but figures to get 19 or 20 more starts if healthy. He was out three weeks earlier this season with a nasty cut on his right middle finger that resulted from a blister.
Winning the Cy Young is possible with a low win total if the ERA is low enough. Seattle’s Felix Hernandez proved that by going 13-12 with a 2.27 ERA in 2010, and Kansas City’s Zack Greinke was 16-8 with a 2.16 ERA in 2009 in winning that award.
But that debate is for another day.
What’s certain right now is that Sanchez is back and humming. In his six starts since coming off the disabled list, Sanchez has a 2.04 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and 35 strikeouts in 39 2/3 innings. Those are dominant numbers.
"He’s one of the best in the game," said Detroit manager Brad Ausmus.
During this stretch, Sanchez has held the top scoring team in the league, Oakland, to one run on three hits. He has blanked the top home run-hitting in the majors, Toronto, and held the team with the second-highest batting average, Texas, to two runs on five hits.
So, he’s taming the toughest teams by mixing his pitches and speeds as well as any pitcher in baseball.
"Man, I think he’s got like 15 pitches," said Martinez. "And he can throw any of them for strikes. But he has a really good fastball at 97-98 (mph). That’s what makes him really tough."
Ausmus thought that Sanchez’s ability to throw his fastball, slider and changeup wherever he wants for strikes "sets him apart" from other pitchers. Ausmus said the curveball is the only pitch Sanchez can’t always command the way he wants.
Tigers center fielder Torii Hunter joked that Sanchez has "only 14 1/2" pitches. That half pitch is what Hunter terms a "Bugs Bunny changeup," which sometimes comes in as low as the 50-mph range and can have batters screwing themselves into the ground with swings just like in the cartoons.
Sanchez laughed about the 15-pitch claim of Martinez, his Venezuelan countryman.
"Nah," Sanchez said, "nah…But I can control everything and throw it for strikes."
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Sanchez: "He’s tough. He just knows how to pitch. He’s got great stuff and he made it hard on us."
And this time, thanks to so much offense that Martinez and Suarez both came within one hit of batting for the cycle, Sanchez even beat the Twins. The last time he faced them, Minnesota triumphed, 2-1.
"I always wait for that," Sanchez said of the run support. "We’ve got a lot of talent and they will come through."
Sanchez, you can be sure, will do his part to win a game.