Sixto trending up as first-inning woes improve

May 14th, 2024

DETROIT -- 's first-inning struggles are well documented. He’s allowed at least twice as many runs out of the gate than he has during any other frame. He knows it, his team knows it, his opponents know it.

No one can quite put their thumb on why.

Skip Schumaker can only smile in frustration when asked what he thinks ails his righty.

“Tell me; I’d love to hear what it is, because I don’t know,” Miami’s manager quipped before the Marlins lost to the Tigers, 6-5, in the series opener on Monday at Comerica Park. “We’ve tried to figure out different ways, whether it's a longer bullpen, shorter bullpen or pregame stuff. We've mixed it up every single time, and it hasn't really translated yet.”

Sánchez entered Monday’s start with a 9.00 career ERA in the first inning. Granted, due to shoulder issues and two surgeries, there were 1,294 days and three seasons between starts at one point, so the sample size is as wide-ranging as it is small, but the early numbers are consistently lacking throughout.

All of that is what made Sánchez’s outing against the Tigers so nice to see. While his early velocity isn’t quite where he’d like it to be -- and he’s still searching for his first win since Sept. 13, 2020 -- the Marlins righty is making strides in the right direction when it comes to reversing the curse of the first.

So, what was the difference on Monday?

“I was extremely focused on throwing strikes and getting those outs,” Sánchez said via interpreter Luis Dorante Jr. “... I think I went out there just to have fun. I think that was the most important part. I gave it all I got like always and was very focused on on throwing strikes and making sure I didn't put my head down in any situation, just kept going.”

Sánchez had been tentative in past starts, but he came right at the Tigers, throwing first-pitch strikes to 15 of the 21 batters he faced. He tore through the first inning, needing just 10 pitches to get through the frame that has plagued him: His first four pitches earned him a pair of groundouts, and the final six won a battle against Wenceel Pérez that concluded with the talented rookie whiffing against a high cutter.

The seven minutes it took to put the first inning to bed gave Sánchez a confidence boost he probably didn’t even know he needed. Now, to put a little more on his early fastballs so they match the velocity of his later offerings. This season, Sánchez’s fastball is averaging 1.2 mph faster in the third inning than it does in the first, and his cutter ticks up 2.2 mph between those two frames.

Sánchez is capable of amping up his early pitch speed -- it’s risen continuously, albeit slightly, during his five starts this season.

“I thought the velo increased again [Monday],” Schumaker said, “so we’ve got to figure out how to get him in the first and second innings to have that 94-96 [mph range] and not the 89-91, because everything else is so much better when he's like that.”

Velocity or not, outs are outs, and that’s what made the second inning that much more unpleasant. Sánchez allowed a single to open the frame and then induced what could have been a double play as Otto Lopez scooped up Colt Keith’s grounder and flipped it to shortstop Vidal Bruján for the first out.

But Bruján bobbled the throw, and instead of a 4-6-3, two men were on with no outs. While Sánchez eventually secured three outs, it wasn’t before Detroit had taken a 3-0 lead. None of the runs were earned.

Sánchez’s good-start-gone-wrong was especially frustrating once Miami tied the game with a three-run fifth, then took a 5-3 lead on a two-homer from Lopez with two outs in the eighth. By the time Anthony Maldonado was charged with three runs in the bottom of the inning -- including a go-ahead two-run homer from Spencer Torkelson -- Sánchez’s contributions were all but forgotten in the mess.

He’ll keep working in the background, and maybe five days from now, he and the Marlins will have another victory to celebrate.