Giants lefty hopes to continue run of solid starting pitching
By Cash Kruth / MLB.com
SAN FRANCISCO -- Last season, Jonathan Sanchez etched his name in Giants' lore with the 13th no-hitter in franchise history.
This year, he threw five shutout innings in the biggest game of the regular season to lead the Giants to their first postseason berth in seven years.
On Sunday, the 27-year-old left-hander can further cement his legacy as he takes the mound in a deadlocked National League Division Series.
With the series tied at one game apiece, Sanchez (13-9, 3.07 ERA) will face Atlanta's Tim Hudson (17-9, 2.83) in Game 3 of the NLDS at 1:30 p.m. PT at Turner Field and try to put the Giants in control of the series.
Despite the added magnitude of the playoffs, Sanchez said he's taking it business as usual as he prepares for his postseason debut.
"Just have to go out there and do my job," Sanchez said after the Giants' 5-4 11-inning loss to the Braves on Friday. "There's no added pressure; I just have to go out there and pitch and do my job, that's all."
This season has been a culmination of sorts for Sanchez, who, in his first four seasons in the Majors, never seemed to be able to fully channel his potential into results.
In his first two years, 2006 and 2007, Sanchez pitched out of the bullpen as he learned the ropes of the big leagues. In 2008, he was promoted to the starting rotation, but struggled with an ERA higher than five and had six starts in which he allowed six or more runs. Every time Sanchez seemed poised to break out after an exceptional outing, he soon after followed with a dud. Heck, before Sanchez no-hit the Padres on July 10, 2009, he had spent the previous two weeks in the bullpen.
Key stat: First in Majors with 75.2 ground ball percentage
Key stat: 8-4, 2.27 ERA in past 12 starts
2010: N/A Career: 8 GS, 1-3, 3.97
2010: N/A Career: 5 GS, 1-2, 3.58 ERA
At AT&T PARK
2010: 17 GS, 8-4, 3.26 ERA Career: 47 GS, 17-15, 4.17 ERA
Against this opponent
2010: 2 GS, 1-0, 1.20 ERA
Career: 13 GS, 5-4, 3.17 ERA
2010: 2 GS, 0-1, 7.56 ERA Career: 15 GS, 1-3, 6.00 ERA
Loves to face: Freddy Sanchez (3-for-21) Hates to face: Aaron Rowand (8-for-21)
Loves to face: Matt Diaz (1-for-8, 6 Ks)
Hates to face: Brian McCann (3-for-7)
Why he'll win: With a propensity to induce grounders, Hudson's strength perfectly matches Giants' weakness
Why he'll win: Confident coming off division-clinching win vs. Padres in regular-season finale
Pitcher beware: Struggled at season's end, recording 5.32 ERA in September/October
Pitcher beware: Up-and-down lefty has been known to let emotions get the best of him
Bottom line: Savvy veteran
Bottom line: Coming of age?
The Giants remained patient with the young lefty, who possesses a low-to-mid-90s fastball, a slider and a newfound split-finger that has been instrumental in his 2010 success. But more important than another pitch to add to his arsenal, Sanchez has finally learned to remain calm on the mound. Early in his career, Sanchez struggled at the first sign of trouble -- whether it was due to a home run, error or bad call -- and was easily distracted. As he's matured this season, Sanchez has been able to remain collected no matter the circumstance.
"You're going to have things happen out there. It may be a call you don't like, it may be an error, you may walk a couple guys, but you can't lose your focus. And I think that's what Johnny has worked on, the mental side of it," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "And keeping his concentration out there and not letting it drift when things don't go just right or well. He's always had the stuff."
The Giants aren't the only club in the league to recognize Sanchez's potential. After all, the lefty has constantly been mentioned in trade speculation the past couple of years as July's Trade Deadline neared. Once again this season, San Francisco opted to hold on to Sanchez despite often getting asked about him and fellow lefty Madison Bumgarner.
"It was always the same mantra on the other side of the ball, where it had to be Sanchez or Bumgarner," Giants general manager Brian Sabean said after this year's Deadline. "We just couldn't cover the loss of one of these pitchers."
Perhaps the confidence the organization showed in keeping Sanchez -- as numerous outsiders clamored for a power bat -- sparked the left-hander. In his final 12 starts after the Deadline, Sanchez went 8-4 with a 2.27 ERA.
"The last six, seven weeks this guy has a great focus, concentration that you like from your starting pitcher out there. Johnny has that now," Bochy said. "It goes with confidence now. He realizes how good his stuff is and that he can be his own worst enemy. And if he has to pitch out of a jam, he gets in traffic there, he's keeping his poise out there.
"That's the difference with him right now where he doesn't get unraveled. Whether it's a call or error, anything that could go awry there, he's not letting that affect him like he used to."
Because so much is on the line in the playoffs, where every pitch, hit and decision is magnified, Sanchez's newfound calmness will no doubt be tested. Throughout his career, Sanchez has dealt with numerous ups and downs and now seems to be finally living up to his potential -- which still remains high.
"He's one of the best pitchers in baseball. ... He's as good as it gets left-handed," Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff said. "It's hard to say he's got some of best stuff on the staff having seen what [Tim Lincecum] did [Thursday], but he's got great stuff. And to be a third starter on this team goes to show you what kind of a staff we have."
Being the third starter also brings added motivation for Sanchez.
On Thursday, Sanchez sat in the dugout as Lincecum put on one of the most memorable displays in postseason hisser with his 14-strikeout, two-hit complete-game shutout. In Friday's Game 2, he saw Matt Cain allow only one unearned run in 6 2/3 strong innings.
As far as Sanchez is concerned, Sunday is his turn.
"I want to be as good as they are," Sanchez said. "They pitched pretty good games. Timmy pitched pretty good [Thursday] night and Cain did a pretty good job [Friday]. I want to be in that role."
Cash Kruth is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.