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Anibal quietly on track to join elite pitching ranks

Righty led AL in ERA last year, but lacked run support in many of his outings

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The last time Anibal Sanchez faced the Braves, he set a franchise single-game record for strikeouts with 17. That performance last April 26 at Comerica Park saw him strike out nine of his final 14 batters from the fifth inning through the eighth. The way the Tigers roughed up Paul Maholm that night, Sanchez's performance snuck up on many.

It was a fitting microcosm of the way his season unfolded. He wasn't sneaking up on anybody from the Braves on Sunday.

"It was funny. I was talking to [Braves third baseman Chris] Johnson from the dugout," Sanchez said with a laugh. "I said, 'Don't swing today. I'm just working.' And he told me, 'Don't throw sliders.'"

Sure enough, Sanchez threw a slider when Johnson came up to bat with a runner on second in the second inning. Johnson sent it back up the middle, nearly hitting Sanchez, before Ian Kinsler corralled it for a groundout.

The play moved Ryan Doumit to third with one out for Dan Uggla, who struck out four times against Sanchez on that April evening in Detroit. Sanchez wasn't any kinder this time around, finding the outside corner to draw a called third strike from Joe West.

"Sinker away," Sanchez said. "The pitch came back really good, no chance for a right-handed hitter."

It was Sanchez's only strikeout in his two innings Sunday, but it was a nasty one. It didn't bring back any memories for him, though.

"That day is in the past," Sanchez said. "Today is another day."

It was a quiet day at that. While Max Scherzer's spring debut drew a good crowd at Joker Marchant Stadium as he kicked off his Cy Young Award follow-up campaign, and Justin Verlander's every development has been headline news in his comeback from offseason surgery, Sanchez has worked this spring in relative obscurity, including Sunday's two scoreless innings in a 0-0 tie.

Nobody asks what Sanchez eats the night before a game. He isn't getting near-daily contract year speculation, though he went through that two years ago. And yet, ever so quietly, he could be the Tigers' next Cy Young award candidate, following the paths of 2011 winner and 2012 runner-up Justin Verlander, and reigning winner Max Scherzer.

A few teams have won back-to-back Cy Young awards with two different pitchers. Only the vaunted 1990s Braves had three Cy Young Award winners in a four-year span: Greg Maddux won it from 1993-95, John Smoltz in 1996, then Tom Glavine finally in 1998.

For modern times, that is the rotation standard. The fact that team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski mentioned those Atlanta teams this past offseason when talking about building a perennial contender around three starters says plenty.

None of the Braves' Big Three, however, have toiled as quietly as Sanchez seemingly does.

"I don't care," he says of media attention. "I'm not one that wants everybody seeing me. I just want to throw good games for my team, for the fans and especially to get the team into the playoffs."

As a pure pitcher, however, Sanchez draws as much attention from some hitters as his rotation brethren.

"His fastballs do different things," Raul Ibanez said near the end of last season. "One is straight, the next one runs. He's got a slower curve, a hard slider and a slider he throws softer. And he's got a hard changeup and a soft changeup. So he's got a lot of weapons and he throws strikes and knows how to pitch. He's a great pitcher."

With a couple of different outcomes, Sanchez might have been the award-winner of the bunch. He still received one of the two first-place Cy Young votes that didn't go to Scherzer, a fact he politely appreciated when it was brought up Sunday, while saying that Scherzer deserved to win.

If you believe in variables like run support balancing out from year or year, or even if you believe in karma, it's not difficult to envision Sanchez enjoying a destiny like Scherzer's last year. Sanchez not only led the American League in ERA in 2013, but backed it up with the league's best Fielding Independent Pitching, an ERA-type number that takes defense out of the equation and accounts for only home runs, walks, hit by pitches and strikeouts. Both were easily the lowest of his eight-year Major League career.

He had the fourth-highest run support of any AL starter at 6.13 runs per nine innings as the pitcher of record, yet took three losses and three no-decisions when he allowed two runs or fewer in six or more innings. Detroit scored two runs or fewer in eight of his 29 starts, but balanced out the average with four double-digit outbursts. In all four of those games, he pitched seven or more innings with a run or less allowed, including his franchise-record 17-strikeout gem against the Braves on April 26.

Sanchez gave up more than one run in just four of his 14 victories, and he didn't win any in which he allowed more than three. He enjoyed run support on average, but he didn't benefit from it overall.

While Sanchez had some massive improvements in some of his stats, especially his strikeout rate, he generally earned what he got, results-wise. It would not necessarily take much fortune to get him the extra wins to further his profile.

For Sanchez's part, his goals are simple.

"Every year you have to make some goals," Sanchez said. "For me, it's getting to 200 innings, get 200 strikeouts, get my 33 starts a year. That's my goal every single year: Control what I can control, so I don't worry too much about the other things, only the things that I can control."

He's doing everything he can to control what he can before he plays, too.

"He's clearly someone who prepares," manager Brad Ausmus said. "He's in the gym every morning. He gets his workouts in. He's very careful about what he eats. He takes a lot of pride in his preparation process for every fifth day."

Sanchez started that regimen five years ago, he said, to stay strong through the season. It has gotten him very close to those goals.

Last year was the second time in three years that Sanchez topped the 200-strikeout mark. The other goals have been tantalizingly close for him. He topped 195 innings three years in a row, but never 200. He made 32 starts in 2010 and 2011 with the Marlins, then 31 in 2012, but never 33.

He might have reached both goals last season if not for his DL stint with a sore shoulder. A full, healthy year might have earned him a lot more than that. Like those statistical marks, a spot among baseball's elite pitchers seems close enough to tease. Maybe this is finally the year he gets it all.

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.
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