DETROIT — Anibal Sanchez has pitched in relief exactly once during a season in his major league career. On July 1, 2006 Sanchez was playing for the Miami Marlins and his third baseman was Miguel Cabrera, hitting a modest .343 at the time. David Ortiz and Coco Crisp were on the same team with the Boston Red Sox. The first batter Sanchez faced was Alex Gonzalez who was with the Tigers for a short time this season.
Sanchez doesn't remember much about that day, but for the first time in eight years he will be in the bullpen, waiting to pitch in relief instead of his more familiar role of starting a game. No longer a rookie, Sanchez is just excited to be pitching once again after it was originally thought he could be lost for the remainder of the season to injury.
"Yeah, especially because either way I'm gonna help the team the more I can all the time when I'm on the mound, when I've got an opportunity for pitch," Sanchez said. "The good thing is I'm healthy, I'm ready for pitching."
Six weeks have gone by since Sanchez has thrown a baseball in a live game and there's only a handful of days left in the regular season. It's for that very reason that Tigers manager Brad Ausmus opted to put Sanchez in the bullpen instead of attempt to rush him back into a starting role. There wasn't enough time left in the season and the last thing the Tigers want to do is have that kind of decision turn on them.
"We're not in a position at this point of the season where we are in the standings of picking and choosing where we slide Sanchie (Sanchez) into the game," Ausmus said. "Unless there's that type of game where you have the opportunity to select an inning or two ahead of time, it's probably going to be based on the need to have him in the game more than anything else."
If and when Sanchez pitches will be up to Ausmus. Although there isn't a pitch limit, because Sanchez is fresh off the disabled list Ausmus said he'll initially exercise caution on how many innings Sanchez pitches. Asked about how Sanchez's role in the bullpen would be defined, Ausmus said Sanchez "could pitch anywhere from the fifth through the end of the game."
Having Sanchez pitch in relief also takes care of what was a looming decision on who would go to the bullpen for the playoffs, if the Tigers make it. Regardless of how this week plays out, Sanchez becomes arguably the best arm out of the bullpen. There will still be a transition though, as Sanchez isn't used to the way pitchers prepare for a game out of the bullpen.
"I think I have to make adjustments," Sanchez said. "I don't do anything right now, I just try to see how it was yesterday in the bullpen, just see how people get ready for the game. I've never been in that situation before, just my second outing in the big leagues in 2006. I have to make adjustments, I have to do everything I need for be ready for the game."
"Yesterday I saw the guys and they're warming up early, especially if they don't pitch. Everybody's stretching, everybody plays catch a little bit, everybody gets loose, waiting for the call. So that's what I'm going to start doing today."
No one knows when Sanchez will be called upon, but it's a large comfort for the Tigers to know that they have a dominant option lying in wait in the bullpen. The Tigers have enough to worry about with their "feast or famine" offense, particularly with runners in scoring position. If they're unable to produce and Ausmus needs perfection from his pitching staff, Sanchez provides that out of the bullpen, and for longer than any other reliever down the stretch.
Detroit leads the AL Central by just one game and they have a tough week ahead, despite the fact the two teams they're playing have the two lowest records in the division. The White Sox and the Twins can get downright pesky at the worst possible time. But having Sanchez in the mix relieves a great deal of pressure for a bullpen that's already been used in excess.