Success has Sanchez smiling

Success has Sanchez smiling

WILMINGTON, Del. -- The sheepish grin on Anibal Sanchez's face told more of a story than the words he used to describe his outing Monday during the Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown.

The hard-throwing right-hander is one of Boston's brightest pitching prospects, a young Venezuelan who has an electric fastball and crippling changeup. That he started for the Red Sox in their exhibition game against Detroit spoke volumes about how highly the organization thinks of him.

That he allowed four runs on eight hits over six innings did little to faze the 21-year-old. He grinned and shifted nervously from foot to foot when asked about his outing. He never mentioned the numbers, never brought up the fact he also fanned six and didn't walk a batter. Sanchez just kept smiling, giving the indication that Monday's effort was just the first step in a journey he hopes will land him in Boston by the end of this season.

"I was very happy," said Sanchez, standing in the bowels of Frawley Stadium on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. "I know it was only an exhibition game, but they gave me the opportunity to throw. I think it was good for me, to have (Boston manager) Terry Francona look at me and have the team see how I throw to big leaguers. It was a good opportunity for my career.

"On Sunday, [pitching in the game] was on my mind. But when I was on the mound, I just felt comfortable. My first pitch was a strike and I struck the batter out. Then I got Ivan Rodriguez to ground out. There were a lot of fans there, but I felt normal and I want to thank Boston for giving me the opportunity to throw there."

Sanchez has been the ace this season for the Wilmington Blue Rocks, Boston's Class A affiliate in the Carolina League. He's 4-1 through eight starts with a 2.09 ERA. If he remains at Wilmington the entire season, a possibility since Jon Papelbon and Jon Lester are currently creating a bit of a logjam at Double-A Portland, he'll be on track to challenge Glendon Rusch's single-season club marks for wins (14) and ERA (1.74).

But Sanchez isn't necessarily inclined to hang around the banks of the Delaware and Brandywine rivers all season. Sure, he's not asking for any promotion and is perfectly happy where he is. He says he's still learning and that Wilmington is a good spot for him. For now.

"I'd like to reach the big leagues this September when they expand the rosters," Sanchez said. "I'd like to move up and know that I can throw at Double-A. But this is a good level for me because I get to practice everything. Right now, all the players here are like me. They don't have big-league experience. I need to learn more and make adjustments."

Sanchez's early dominance would suggest he might outgrow the Carolina League quickly, if he hasn't already. He's coming off a 2004 season in which he went 3-4 with a 1.77 ERA in 15 starts for Class A Lowell after Tommy John surgery cost him the entire 2003 season.

While his fastball hops and his changeup dances, Sanchez knows he needs to work more on his curveball if he is to have any chance of realizing his dream of being in Boston by year's end.

"I just don't have control over it," Sanchez said. "[Monday] I didn't have control of my curve and I didn't have it for a couple of games here. I'd like to have it all the time, so I need to practice that more. My fastball and my changeup are my two best pitches, but I'd like my curve to become a big weapon.

"It would be a good pitch for me. If I throw my other pitches for strikes, I'll have a better opportunity to throw my curve for strikes. I have to be able to throw it for a strike at any point in the count and I'm going to need that if I'm going to reach the big leagues."

Sanchez also downplayed his fast start at Wilmington, saying that because he pitched in Winter Ball and faced many Major League hitters, he came into the season better prepared and a step ahead of some hitters. Yet there are some who think he'd be just where he is now even if he didn't pitch during the offseason.

"Anibal floors me every time he goes out and strikes out 10 or 12 guys," said Wilmington right-hander Jarrett Gardner, whose fastball usually tops out in the mid-80s, some 10 mph slower than Sanchez's. "It's fun to watch him. I see him on his off days working really hard. Size-wise, he's not the most intimidating guy, but he works really hard. And he throws strikes the batter isn't looking for.

"He'll sneak a fastball by them and then break off a change. He'll throw the ball up in the zone and change the batter's eye level. He's very smart that way."

Getting Sanchez to admit to that will be tough. Just watch his face, though. His smile speaks volumes.

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.