Sánchez on hero's welcome in return: 'They still love me'

March 31st, 2024

This story was excerpted from Christina De Nicola’s Marlins Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

MIAMI – To the surprise of no one, the loudest cheers at loanDepot park during Opening Day introductions were reserved for the likes of Marlins ace and All-Star

Then there was the uproar for right-hander , whose return had been nearly four years in the making. Many doubted it would ever happen after two shoulder surgeries and endless setbacks. Once one of baseball’s top pitching prospects, Sánchez still continued to receive well-wishes from fans during his long road to recovery. It proved that despite the passage of time, he hadn’t been forgotten.

“It felt great,” Sánchez said via interpreter Luis Dorante Jr. “I did notice walking out there. I heard my name, and the cheering of the fans was something special. I was thinking, ‘They still love me.’ It was very exciting to be back here with the fans in the crowd. I'm going to give all I've got to show them who I can be.”

In 2020, a 22-year-old Sánchez began his Major League career with a 132 ERA+ in seven starts. Not only did he help the Marlins clinch their first postseason appearance since ’03, but he also tossed five scoreless innings in the National League Wild Card Series-clinching Game 2 against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

Now 25 years old, Sánchez entered Spring Training as a long shot to make the Opening Day roster. Without Minor League options remaining, he would have been subject to waivers if he didn’t show enough promise. The organization didn’t quite know what to expect from Sánchez, who had thrown just one inning since Game 3 of the 2020 NL Division Series.

To the surprise of everyone, Sánchez experienced a renaissance. He tossed nine scoreless innings in six Grapefruit League outings to earn a spot in the bullpen. His trademark velocity -- while not all the way back -- still reached the upper-90s.

“The kid touched 99 [mph]. He told me 100 is coming, and that gives me indications that the guy's feeling good and has got over some of the mental hurdles that he was going through,” pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. said on March 16. “My bullpen coach [Wellington Cepeda] made a comment, he goes, ‘He's in a different place and he feels like he's part of the team.’

“You could see it in his work and his run. He's having fun at this game again, and [if] we keep him healthy after waiting this long in whatever role we use him in, he's going to be a huge asset, because, look, this guy with his stuff, he could close games.”

In his long-awaited return to the big league mound on Thursday, Sánchez surrendered the game-tying leadoff homer to the Pirates’ Oneil Cruz in the eighth inning of Miami’s 6-5 loss. Manager Skip Schumaker didn’t intend to use Sánchez in such a high-leverage spot, but he had to pivot once right-hander George Soriano struggled to find the strike zone and recorded just one out in the sixth. Schumaker had hoped to get two innings from Soriano, bridging the gap from starter Jesús Luzardo to setup man Andrew Nardi, then to closer Tanner Scott.

Sánchez bounced back after the opposite-field shot, which came on a 96 mph four-seamer on the outer edge of the plate. He needed just nine pitches to retire the next three batters. On Saturday, Sánchez went two innings, giving up two runs -- both on a play that didn’t leave the infield (RBI fielder’s choice and error).

“I thought Sixto pitched really good, honestly,” Schumaker said following Thursday’s outing. “He gave up the home run, [a] solo home run at a tough time, but I think Sixto is going to be just fine. He had really good stuff working. I know he doesn't want to give up the home run, and I get it, but I thought he looked really good, actually.”