DETROIT -- What a difference one season can make. Last year didn't start out so well for Anibal Sanchez. After a rough 2014 spring training, Sanchez's regular season went about as smoothly as his spring. Which is to say it didn't go smoothly at all, and the right-handed starter found himself in the Detroit Tigers' bullpen instead of the starting rotation heading into the postseason. But after a solid spring and regular-season start, 2015 is looking significantly better for Sanchez.
Wednesday afternoon Sanchez went 6 2/3 innings strong in his first start of the 2015 season. He kept hitters off-balance, and despite the weather had full usage of his pitching repertoire. Until the last few batters Sanchez's pitches were hitting the corners of the strike zone with ease, and with efficiency. It's a stark contrast to the start of the 2014 season.
"Sanchez has a different look in his eye this year, I think, on the mound," manager Brad Ausmus said. "He got off to that rough start because of weather and injuries (last year), but he has a different look in his eye this year. It's like he's determined to do something."
Of the seven starts Sanchez had this spring, four that went five-or-more innings in length and none of his starts were delayed or cancelled for rain or injury. Last spring Sanchez had just three starts, none that lasted more than four innings, and he had to deal with right shoulder inflammation. His last start before the regular season was scratched due to weather, as was his first regular-season start.
When Sanchez did make his first start of the regular season (a 10-4 rout of the Orioles) he was limited to just four innings due to a 36 minutes rain delay -- and because the Tigers wanted to be cautious with Sanchez following his shoulder inflammation. By the latter part of May, Sanchez was steady, though. He became one of the Tigers' best starters and remained dominant until August 8, when he was pulled after 4 2/3 innings against the Toronto Blue Jays for a right pectoral strain.
The Tigers lost Sanchez as a starter for the rest of the season. He pitched in relief for one inning on Sept. 26, and for two innings during the team's short-lived postseason. Sanchez's shortened spring negatively affected his ability to pitch deep into the 2014 season and contribute effectively to the team, and as a result Ausmus was extremely cautious in how he used him. So, after how the 2014 season went, Wednesday's outing more than pleased Sanchez.
"I'll take (this start) all the time," Sanchez said. "I don't have any complaints. I feel great to throw the ball that way today. It's been good, especially when you feel like you can do whatever you want with your arm physically. That makes you more comfortable on the mound."
Wednesday was not what you'd refer to as a pleasant day to stand on the mound. Facing hitters in 39-degree weather is anything but fun, and there's nothing you can do but try and get opposing hitters out as quickly as possible. And as Sanchez said after the game, that's a big part of what drove him to get through the game so quickly.
Hand warmers only do so much, and coming from the warm, sunny Lakeland, Fla. weather, pitching in Detroit is a rough adjustment. Wednesday's solution? Strikes, lots of them. Sanchez induced early contact with regularity, enabling him to head back inside for a half-inning while the Tigers offense kept the Twins' pitching staff busy -- and cold. The ending result was back-to-back shutout games twirled by Tigers pitching, a first in franchise history.
"I think that's what we do in spring training," Sanchez said. "We worked hard. DP (Price) did a great job for us in the first game. I just tried to follow him, especially in the situation and the command of the game, like a game plan. I tried to follow what he did on Monday, and I put it into the game today."
After the dominant start by David Price on Opening Day, Sanchez was pitching in what was originally Justin Verlander's slot in the rotation. But with the righthander on the 15-day disabled list, Sanchez's first start was moved up a day. Pitching in place of Verlander doesn't matter, though, only Sanchez's ability to stay deeper in a game as opposed to last year. Where last season was a lurching wreck to start the season, it's been smooth sailing this time around. No setbacks.
It's very early in the season. The weather is cold, disagreeably grumpy, and the Tigers aren't headed anywhere warm for the next two series' as they'll be facing the Cleveland Indians and then the Pittsburgh Pirates. It's not going to be a walk in the park. For Sanchez and the rest of the Tigers rotation, right now all they can do is lay out a good game plan and hope for the best. But at least Sanchez's season isn't hampered by injuries and doubtful starts.
"This year is totally different because I got the opportunity to throw all my starts in spring training," Sanchez said. "It made me feel strong and built my arm like you're supposed to do during spring training. Last year I didn't have that opportunity."
Sanchez's best may just be getting started. If the 2013 American League ERA champion can stay healthy in 2015 and pitch deep into games, much like he did on Wednesday, Sanchez might be able to finish the season with another ERA title, or perhaps a Cy Young -- he finished fourth in 2013.
Maybe that's the difference Ausmus notices in Sanchez. Regardless of what happens, though, Sanchez's 2015 season hasn't been marred by setbacks, and that's already an improvement. What a difference one year makes, indeed.