Sanchez Keeps Leads Safe For Springfield

SPRINGFIELD, Mo.—In the past few years, the Double-A Springfield Cardinals have hardly had to worry about the ninth inning. Three lock-down closers have gone on to reach the big leagues, some with notable degrees of success.

These days, the job belongs to Eduardo Sanchez, a Venezuelan righthander whose mid-90s fastball and overwhelming curve have positioned him within striking distance and would appear ideal for an eighth-inning set-up role.

But to understand Sanchez's proximity to the majors, consider a recent—and sudden—save situation. Summoned to fire-hose what had been a blowout, he immediately served up a two-out, three-run home run and then ended the game on a three-pitch strikeout.

It was, as pitching coach and former big leaguer Dennis Martinez told it, a key indicator of Sanchez's progress.

"I went in and said, 'Wait a minute. Remember, this is your third day in a row pitching, so your stuff may not be there, but you have a good curveball. Don't forget your curveball,' " Martinez said. "He (nodded), so guess what he did? He threw two nasty curveballs and then blew him away with a fastball."

The point being?

"I didn't have to tell him to throw the curveball," Martinez said. "I let him decide, and I wanted to see if he understood me."

Consider it the mark of Sanchez.

Despite a gifted arm and fabulous low-90s radar gun readings at age 16 that could have provided a false sense of confidence, the 21-year-old listens to his elders, quickly recognizes a situation for what it is and then uses his intelligence.

But that is no surprise. Sanchez exudes a sense of calm and collectedness in the clubhouse and then appears unnerved within the unpredictable drama of the ninth inning, much in the way an assassin might remain focused in a chaotic environment.

In essence, it is how he conceals his confidence. When asked about being the closer, he finally grins and lets loose.

"It means winning," he said.

Gaining Admirers

It's no wonder, then, that veteran scouts who have passed through the Texas League give Sanchez high marks.  

Sanchez has excellent fastball command and impeccable control of it. It has registered at 95 mph this season.

His delivery is slow and deliberate, keeping his front shoulder closed and his upper body compact. His mechanics help him hide his fastball, allowing it to jump on batters quickly.

However, don't sleep on his curveball. It's an absolute weapon. Against righthanders, it bends outward as if it will either strike the batter or run too far inside. But then it breaks late, usually just across the knees and usually for a strike.

Through 21 innings, he struck out 22, issued just five walks and held batters to 14 hits. It's all led to nine saves in 11 chances.  

"I think he is close," an American League scout said. "He's rapidly becoming a pitcher. He has maturity and confidence and it's that confidence and maturity that's been good. He seems like he knows he should be here and know he can do the job."

The scout also liked the way Sanchez has started to throw the curveball in any count.

"Once I signed, it was very natural," Sanchez said through an interpreter. "I did it with conviction and intensity. Whenever I didn't, it was easy for the hitters."

In April, Martinez implored him to turn to either his curveball or slider and stick with it. So Sanchez chose the curve, mainly because it freezes righthanders much more effectively than the slider, which can flatten at times.

Early on, he did try to work in a changeup, but it's been non-existent. Nevertheless, the fastball-curve combo has been one of the best for a Springfield closer the past five years. Since then, the team has sent to the majors Josh Kinney, Chris Perez and Luke Gregerson.

But Sanchez has shown better command of his fastball than any of those three at a similar stage of their careers, and his breaking ball is clearly better.

"To me, he is a kid that's hungry," Martinez said. "You have to be accountable to pitch back-to-back-to-back, and he's that way. He has a resilient arm. When he crosses the (foul) line, he becomes a monster."

Long Road

For Sanchez, his baseball journey has been a road well-traveled. He signed as a nondrafted free agent in 2006, spending all that season in the Rookie-level Venezuelan Summer League.

He still remembers the chain-link fence around the field and the campus overall. So when he returns to his home country, Sanchez makes it a point to swing by. To him, it is necessary. He took some lumps there—some much-needed lumps, that is.

"I had some rough times, but overall it made me a better pitcher," Sanchez said. "I was facing control issues."

So he bore down. Sanchez progressed over the next two seasons, reaching the Texas League midway through 2009. He posted impressive strikeout-to-walk ratios and improved along the way. The key is learning from mistakes. Sanchez makes it a point to review each outing, especially those that result in a poor performance.

"The times I face that, I will take 15 to 20 minutes (to think) about what went wrong, continue to move on but work at it," Sanchez said. "I have to work hard every single day. When I got here, I realized I had to work every single time out there. The competition is that good."

Kary Booher covers the Springfield Cardinals for the Springfield News-Leader.