Anibal Sanchez gets rocked in the sixth as the Tigers lose again

BALTIMORE — How long can the Detroit Tigers realistically afford to stick with starter Anibal Sanchez on a given night?

That question looms large following Saturday night’s 9-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards, the club’s 11th loss in the past 12 games.

Sanchez pitched a sharp and efficient first five innings, blanking the homer-happy Orioles and working quickly. But, as we have seen in previous starts, the 32-year-old starter always seems perilously close to becoming derailed by a single pitch, one poor at-bat. He was susceptible Saturday night once he entered the sixth inning.

After freezing Orioles shortstop Manny Machado for the first out, Adam Jones sizzled a sharp liner to left that evaded Steven Moya‘s grasp and landed for a double. It was a play Moya should have made, and it changed the complexion of the inning.

From there Sanchez gave up another double, and then a home run. And all the sudden, the Tigers saw a two-run lead disappear. The seventh got even uglier, as he gave up a leadoff solo home that left the Tigers trailing by two.

“It almost is like the sixth inning is a wall that he hits,” Ausmus said. “His pitch count was down. He had [63] pitches. I don’t think he was tiring.”

Heading into Saturday’s game, Sanchez –who did not speak to reporters after the game — had shown difficulty when working his third time through the order. According to Baseball-Reference.com, his batting average against is .303 vs. .232 and .288 in the first two times through. That was true again Saturday, prompting questions about whether it’s more of a psychological hurdle than anything.

“It’s possible,” Ausmus said. “Usually it’s the fifth inning is the psychological point for pitchers because it’s where they get the win or the loss — or the win, anyway — but when your pitch count is that low, generally I think his strength, his velocity was good, there’s no signs of him deteriorating other than a fact that he gave up the runs.”

These late-game struggles put manager Brad Ausmus in a near-impossible position. Does he pre-emptively pull him before he takes his third turn through — even when he’s pitching very well and maintaining a low pitch count? This seems an absurd premise, especially with a heavily-taxed bullpen. But sticking with him doesn’t seem too comforting anymore, either.

The Tigers can’t afford for him to be a No. 3 starter and only go five innings.

“He can’t be a five-innings pitcher,” Ausmus said. “The bigger problem is that even if you see he’s struggling there after five — which I don’t think there were signs of it, quite frankly — our bullpen is so taxed that I don’t know how we get through the next four innings.”

Heading into this season, the 32-year-old pitcher was counted on to be the linchpin of the rotation. The Tigers know what they have in both ace Justin Verlander, who pitched a superb eight-inning game Friday night, and Jordan Zimmermann, whose grit and poise on the mound has managed to even exceed the expectations of his $ 110 million price tag. The bottom half of the rotation was always bound to be much more fluid, especially with young arms competing for jobs. Sanchez needed to give them some length, some consistency and some idea of what to expect at the very least.

Through eight starts, he has not done any of those things.

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