DETROIT -- Anibal Sanchez has been scratched from his scheduled start on Sunday against the Indians because of stiffness in his upper back, near his shoulder. Jose Alvarez will be called up from Triple-A Toledo to take his place.
To make room for Alvarez on the 25-man roster, the Tigers optioned right-handed reliever Jose Ortega to Triple-A Toledo. The 24-year-old Ortega threw seven scoreless innings with three hits and seven strikeouts over his first six outings after being called up at the end of the April, but a couple of rough outings against the Rangers and Pirates turned his numbers sour.
"In fairness to Ortega, he did nothing wrong," manager Jim Leyland said. "This was just one of those freak situations."
The issue with Sanchez is small enough that both he and the team's medical staff believe one skipped turn will clear it up. Sanchez said that he experienced the same problem in Spring Training last year, when he was with the Marlins, and was able to put it behind him quickly.
"I just missed one start," Sanchez said. "I took a couple days off and got ready, and nothing bothered me the rest of the season."
It's enough of a concern, though, that the Tigers didn't want to take the chance of having Sanchez pitch through it and worsen it. For someone with a history of shoulder problems, including surgery in 2007 and a sprain in 2009, it's a bigger cause for caution.
It also might be why Sanchez calls it a muscular issue in his back around the shoulder rather than a shoulder injury. He characterized it as "tightness."
"I know people, when they see something about my shoulder, they have a lot of concern. But it's not about my shoulder," he said. "It's just my back."
The issue, according to head athletic trainer Kevin Rand, popped up as fatigue near the end of Sanchez's previous start, on Tuesday against the Rays. With the Tigers holding a big lead, Leyland pulled Sanchez after seven innings and 102 pitches, so it didn't raise any signs for concern.
But once he began his regular work between starts, though, the tightness lingered.
"He didn't recover quite as well," Rand said. "He threw a side [session] yesterday, and it was OK, but the prudent thing is to give him this start and get ready for the next one."
Said Sanchez: "I'm not worried. I just need to take care of it. It's early. We're in June right now, so we have a lot more starts to go. It's part of the game. We're working with our body, and when something happens, we need to take care of it."
Had the issue arisen earlier in the season, the Tigers might have turned to Drew Smyly, who lost out to Rick Porcello for the fifth spot in the rotation out of Spring Training. At this point, though, Smyly's arm is no longer stretched out long enough to cover more than a few innings.
Thus the Tigers turn to Alvarez, a Minor League free agent from last winter who has been a pleasant surprise in the Mud Hens' rotation. He leads the International League in strikeouts, with 76, ranks second with a 2.42 ERA and third with 74 1/3 innings pitched. His 5-4 record reflects the Hens' problems scoring runs.
"He's been about the best pitcher in the International League," Leyland said. "[He] was the recommendation that we got from our Minor League people."
The Tigers signed Alvarez this offseason as a Minor League free agent from the Marlins.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.