LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Anibal Sanchez is used to being the third banana behind Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.
Although Sanchez won the American League earned-run-average title and set the Detroit Tigers’ single-game strikeout record last season, it was Scherzer who won the Cy Young Award. Verlander won that in 2011 along with the MVP award.
Even when Sanchez made his 2014 Grapefruit League debut, Sunday against the Atlanta Braves, the first question in Detroit manager Brad Ausmus’ post-game press conference after the 10-inning scoreless tie was about Verlander.
Verlander had thrown a light, 30-pitch bullpen session Sunday back in Lakeland, and it was a clean outing. That cleared the way for Ausmus to schedule Verlander’s first start for Thursday, when the Tigers play the Philadelphia Phillies at Joker Marchant Stadium.
"Two innings, that’s the plan," Ausmus said. "We’ll go from there — just like with anyone else.
"I’m certainly happy — a lot happier than on Jan. 9, when I heard he was having surgery."
Verlander had core muscle repair surgery Jan. 9, and there was a chance he would miss his first start of the season. But now he’s on schedule to make the five spring starts that would be ideal in ramping up to 100-pitch capability.
If Verlander continues to pitch every fifth day during spring training, the opener on March 31 with the Kansas City Royals in Detroit would be on the fifth day after his final exhibition appearance.
So it’s all lined up for Verlander to make his seventh consecutive Opening Day start for the Tigers — although Ausmus hasn’t committed to choosing Verlander, Scherzer or even Sanchez. All that Ausmus has said is that he expects those three to start the first three games.
Asked about the attention going more to Verlander and Scherzer, Sanchez smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
"I don’t care," Sanchez said after throwing two scoreless innings against Atlanta. "I just want to throw good games for my team."
Sanchez was getting ready for his start when he spotted Braves third baseman Chris Johnson.
"Don’t swing today!" Sanchez shouted at Johnson.
Johnson was about the only member of the Braves whom Sanchez had trouble with on April 26, when he set the franchise record with 17 strikeouts in eight shutout innings at Comerica Park. Johnson was 2-for-4 and fanned once.
Dan Uggla, who was Sanchez’s only strikeout victim Sunday, struck out four times in that game and so did Freddie Freeman.
Sanchez ended up going 14-8 with a league-leading 2.57 ERA, and finished fourth in Cy Young voting ahead of pitchers such as Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale. Sanchez struck out 202 to rank third on the team behind Scherzer (240) and Verlander (217).
Sanchez was limited to 29 starts and 182 innings because a strained right shoulder landed him on the 15-day disabled list in June.
"Every year, you have goals," Sanchez said. "Mine are 200 innings, 200 strikeouts and 33 starts. I control what I control."
He says it’s all about getting to the playoffs, where he’s thrived with a career 2.95 ERA.
When Ausmus became Detroit’s manager after last season, he recalled Sanchez mowing down the New York Yankees in a 2012 playoff game. He pitched seven innings of three-hit shutout ball.
"I remember the intense look on his face," Ausmus said. "And he pitched outstanding."
As a player, Ausmus went 0-for-2 against Sanchez, with a sacrifice fly and a walk. Ausmus recalled him being good in the National League with the Florida Marlins, but not that good.
"He was in the league," Ausmus added. "I remember thinking, ‘I don’t remember this guy.’"
Sanchez laughed when Ausmus’ comment was relayed.
"He said that?" asked Sanchez. He then added that, after coming to Detroit from the Marlins in a July 2012 trade, everyone told him that the American League was the tougher league to pitch in.
Sanchez started slowly after the trade, but caught fire down the stretch and in the playoffs. He made some adjustments and hasn’t let up since.
Sanchez was expected to be just a pennant-drive pickup. However, Detroit saw enough to sign him for five years at $88 million, with an option to keep him through 2018. The big money hasn’t caused Sanchez to get complacent, though. He told me that he inherited a blue-collar work ethic from his father.
"He takes a lot of pride in his preparation," said Ausmus, who has seen Sanchez’s intensity in the weight room at Joker Marchant Stadium, as well.
Sanchez allowed one hit, a double to Ryan Doumit, and didn’t walk anybody in two innings on Sunday.
"I threw a lot of strikes and got ahead in the count," Sanchez said. "I had two quick innings."
It was the first step toward achieving those goals he set.
"His velocity seemed to tick up, and he looked comfortable," Ausmus said. "He didn’t look as intense as in the postseason, but he’s definitely one of those guys who’s focused."