DETROIT -- Anibal Sanchez has a shorter leash these days, and for good reason.
The 32-year-old starter, who has shown difficulty this season in working through an opponent's batting order for the third time, was given the quick hook in the Detroit Tigers' 7-5 defeat to the Tampa Bay Rays at Comerica Park, a loss that snapped the club's four-game winning streak.
Sanchez, who entered the game 3-4 with a 5.91 ERA, lasted just two batters into the sixth inning Friday night. After giving up a leadoff single to Evan Longoria and walking Steve Pearce, Sanchez was promptly removed from what was a tie ballgame. Maybe manager Brad Ausmus saw Sanchez hit the proverbial wall, as he described following his previous outing in Baltimore, or maybe Ausmus wanted to preempt that from happening entirely. Either way, it was another truncated start for the erratic right-hander, who has provided the Tigers with only one outing of at least seven innings through his first nine starts of the season.
Sanchez encountered trouble early, saddling the Tigers with a 3-0 hole after the first inning, which began with him surrendering a leadoff home run to Steven Souza Jr. Sanchez recovered from there, working through the next four innings with relative ease and efficiency. The sixth inning, however, continues to be Sanchez' demise, and the Tigers were prepared for the possibility, with two relievers at the ready in case things went awry.
"That's part of the reason we got guys going ahead of time, just in case it happened," Ausmus said of calling for action in Detroit's bullpen. "We felt at the end of the fifth he was cruising along. Sometimes in baseball something happens or a flip is switched from one inning to the next."
When that flip was switched, Ausmus promptly replaced Sanchez with reliever Kyle Ryan before any further damage could be done, but his combined shortcomings in the bookends of his performance were enough to put the Tigers in a difficult spot, one that even a two-homer night from Miguel Cabrera could not rectify.
"Just one inning, everything changed," Sanchez said.
The third time through the order -- or the sixth inning, whichever comes first -- seems, at this point, an insurmountable task for Sanchez. Heading into Friday’s game, Sanchez had a batting average against of .219 in his first time through the lineup and .267 in his second, with the third time through jumping to .341, according to Baseball-Reference.com. His sixth-inning ERA was a whopping 18.69 heading into Friday.
So, is this a mental hangup for Sanchez?
"I'm not sure," Ausmus said. "I'm not sure if it is or not."
It certainly would not be the first time a player was impeded by some sort of mental obstacle. Ausmus referenced former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass' infamous struggles -- colloquially known as "The Thing" in baseball circles, a murky diagnosis similar to the "yips" -- something players are wary of even speaking about. Ausmus made it clear he did not think Sanchez was suffering from the same affliction ("That is not what Sanchez has," he stressed) but he did acknowledge the mental challenges of the game.
"There's a history of people in baseball struggling with the mental aspects of the game. The whole idea of 'The Thing' is mental. I'm not saying that's the case with Sanchez, but in general, there are mental aspects to baseball that can block players from performing better," Ausmus said.
Sanchez insisted it was merely a matter of a few poor, untimely pitches in his recent outings.
"Nothing mental," he said.
Regardless of the reason behind Sanchez' sixth-inning roadblock, it's becoming a troubling pattern and one that cannot be ignored. Starting pitchers have to be able to give their clubs some length. Sanchez has not proved he can do that.
That’s a problem, and Ausmus indicated as much before the game.
“If we start pulling our pitchers after the second time through the lineup,” Ausmus said, “our bullpen is going to be in pieces.”
Sanchez will make his next scheduled start, but as of now, it's difficult for the team to have much confidence or certainty in what that outing will bring.
"You'll see him in five days," Ausmus said. "And we'll see how it goes."