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Tigers' Anibal Sanchez, Alex Avila prime example of pitcher-catcher chemistry

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Even the most valuable pitchers aren't their best without a trustworthy catcher who can read him like a book.

Leon Halip/Getty Images

DETROIT -- Anibal Sanchez has now given the Detroit Tigers seven straight starts of going at least seven innings deep. In that time he's given up no more than four runs in a game and in four of his starts allowed three or fewer runs, including a two-hit shutout.

Nine years after his only no-hitter, Sanchez took another one into the eighth in an 8-6 victory over the Blue Jays and looks reminiscent of his dominant self once again. Sanchez's efforts weren't without help, though. Alex Avila, freshly reinstated from the disabled list the same day, was catching. And it was like day one all over again for the seven-year veteran catcher.

"I felt like a rookie again early on in the game," Avila said. "I was pretty nervous and a little jumpy but relaxed as the game went on."

Sanchez had walked two batters -- one to lead off the second and a one-out walk in the seventh -- but allowed nothing more. His changeup -- which, oddly enough is called a splitter by MLB Gameday -- seemed to divebomb at the last second, causing batters to swing wildly at nothing.

Behind the plate, Avila called Sanchez's pitches "explosive," admitting it was "fun" to not only be back behind the dish, but to be calling such a phenomenal start. And for Sanchez, who finally has command of his pitches back, praised Avila's work behind the plate.

"Amazing. We talked about it, like, 'You are in the minor leagues and you come back from the DL and that happened?'" Sanchez remarked. "Had to be amazing for everybody, especially for him. We put a really good game plan in before the game and we bring it into the game. I have been with Alex the last four years. We got a pretty good combination."

Sanchez's fastball, which Avila noted was the pitch that was working the best, was crisp with plenty of movement and velocity. And for that reason Avila had to mix it up to prevent opposing hitters from getting a leg up. But that changeup, that potent pitch for seven innings, began to betray Sanchez in the eighth.

At 90 pitches to start that fateful inning, his changeup began to lose its movement. Sanchez began to show signs of wearing out. Offspeed pitches were being left up. During a developing no-hitter in the past, Sanchez would shake off Avila and the batter would break it up. This time, though, the roles were reversed.

"This time, he was thinking, 'Don't shake Alex off, don't shake Alex off,'" Avila said. "He didn't and gives up a base hit. So I screwed that one up. I called a changeup, kinda like, if he puts it down like he did earlier in the game for a strikeout. But I should have known better, at 107 pitches, probably should have called a fastball."

The twisted knife to exactly how Sanchez lost his no-hitter was that it came at the hands of a former Tigers player, Ezequiel Carrera. And if that wasn't enough, former Tigers prospect Devon Travis knocked the second of Sanchez's only three hits of the night, which eventually led to him leaving with one out in the eighth and the bases loaded.

But despite losing his no-hit bid, the shutout, and eventually a quality start because of reliever Alex Wilson's poor eighth -- he allowed five runs to score while recording just one out -- Sanchez has looked very much like himself of late. In his last seven starts, he's retained a 2.94 ERA in 52 innings pitched, with 41 strikeouts in that time.

The bullpen, and even some of the Tigers' starters lately, hasn't been overly dependable. If Sanchez can remain dominant and stabilize what has been a shaky time for the Tigers, it could go a long way to getting Detroit back on its feet. Now if only the bullpen would cooperate. But that's a different, darker story for another day.