By: Will Burchfield
You can see it in his eyes.
They’re cold and calculating when he’s on the mound, the way they used to be. They’re warm and welcoming when he’s off it, they way they’ve always been.
A pitcher has been revived in a person who never changed.
Anibal Sanchez, who not long ago accepted a demotion to Triple-A Toledo, has fought his way back into the Tigers rotation and proven once more that he belongs. His comeback rolled along on Thursday, when he held the Giants to two runs over six innings while striking out eight in a 6-2 win.
That makes it four strong outings in row since Sanchez returned to the rotation on June 19. What was surprising has become inspiring, a feel-good story folded into a frustrating season.
“He definitely has his confidence back, there’s no question about that. You can tell by the look in his eyes,” said Brad Ausmus. “You can tell after a bad pitch that he’s able to calm himself and re-focus and come back with a good pitch. He does, he looks different.”
Sanchez never lost this steely gaze, not completely. Even earlier this year, when the erstwhile ERA champ was being knocked around the yard like a Little Leaguer, there were flashes of it.
“But this is the first steady, constant determination,” Ausmus said.
Confidence is a mindset more than a characteristic. It can fluctuate against a person’s will, depending on his level of success. But positivity, down-to-earth cheer, comes from within. A person is as buoyant as he wants to be.
“Through the struggles and the good times he’s been the same person, day in and day out,” said catcher James McCann. “And that says a lot about who a person is.”
Before Sanchez accepted his demotion to Triple-A in late May — an idea that was actually his own — he may have been the worst pitcher in the big leagues. The numbers were galling, irrespective of the fact that they used to be so great. An ERA of 9.00, a WHIP of over 2.00. A home run almost every other inning.
“It’s certainly been a hard year for him, the way it’s gone on the baseball field. The one thing I will say, he always came to the park in a good frame of mind. With that being said, I would think this is extremely gratifying for him — and it should be, because he’s made a 180 turnaround,” said Ausmus.
If there were an award for comeback player of the year within a single season, Ausmus suggested, Sanchez would the leading candidate. He has a 3.09 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP since returning to the majors.
“When I went to the minor leagues I didn’t think that my career was over. I thought it was another step in my career, another decision. I know it was an opportunity to help this team, and that’s what I’m doing right now,” Sanchez said.
This a topic on which Sanchez has been pressed, especially of late. Surely, at some point, he must have pondered his baseball mortality. Maybe on the trip to Toledo. Maybe when he first arrived, surrounded by players heading in the other direction. Or maybe when he departed about a month later, embarking on what had to be his last chance in the majors.
“No, I never think it’s the last. Even when you’re doing bad, never is it gonna be the last. Tomorrow is another day. I’ve been working so hard to be here and it’s not the time right now to quit,” said Sanchez. “It’s a time to continue working hard, to continue to be able to win games for this team.”
If this sounds trite, it was anything but. Sanchez is a believer. No matter what happens today, he presumes a better tomorrow.
“I believe in God, that he put the tools to me to learn how to pitch again. He reminded me how I can pitch again,” said Sanchez, reflecting on his experience in Toledo.
The tools are different than they once were, less dynamic but more versatile. He’s featured an especially slow changeup of late, one that makes him smile almost anytime it’s mentioned. He calls it the “mariposa,” Spanish for “butterfly.” It dips and dives like its namesake.
Sanchez related his recent pitching approach to horsing around in long toss. He’s making the ball move in new and interesting ways. He’s trying ever different pitch sequences. The veteran is doing everything he can to keep hitters off balance.
“I don’t have the 97 in my arm,” he said, “but I got the command.”
Said Ausmus, “The changeup to me looks better and the slider looks better. It looks crisper to me (based on) the way hitters are responding to them. The fastball looks the same to me, I just think he’s locating it.”
For his second outing in a row, Sanchez walked off the mound on Thursday to a standing ovation from the Comerica Park crowd. It wasn’t long ago that the fans were booing.
“The crowd is really good and I always say that the fans deserve it, because they come to (the game) to try to enjoy. You don’t want to go to support your team and see your team lose,” said Sanchez.
He understands why people wrote him off, fans and media members alike. He isn’t bitter about it, doesn’t even seem to use it as fuel. How could he ever internalize negativity? Instead, he is driven by the desire to help his teammates.
“There’s not a lot of guys that would have accepted that demotion, and from my understanding he did it with open arms,” said McCann. “He went down and worked and worked and worked, and it’s phenomenal to see it paying off right now.”
It makes for a heck of a story, for a team whose script hasn’t gone to plan. The Tigers might not amount to much this season, but here, at least, is a chapter worth reading.
“I don’t know if Disney will buy it,” said Ausmus, “but it’s a good story and it’s happening to a good person.”