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Anibal Sanchez helping lead youthful Braves, Soroka on and off field

A day after 20-year-old Mike Soroka makes his return from the disabled list, 34-year-old Anibal Sanchez will take the mound against the Padres.

The two are at distinctly different points in their careers. Soroka will make only his fourth start of his career Wednesday afternoon against the Mets, still learning the nuances of pitching every five days in MLB. Sanchez, coming off two strong outings, is as focused on staying healthy as anything. He just wants to take advantage of the opportunity that he wasn’t sure would come, with a team few expected to be atop the NL East.

“Every day that I come here, I feel a blessing,” Sanchez said before Wednesday’s game. “I feel blessed to be here because I know how tough the offseason was for most of the players my age. I signed with the Twins, got released, got an opportunity here with another team that I liked. To be able to be in that position right now, with a team whose expectation was different than where we are right now.

“Now, for me, every outing is a challenge. I want to pitch for the team. I want to win for the team. I want to keep the team in first place. I want to be able to be healthy the rest of the season and help the team the most that I can and make the playoffs.”

Thus far, Sanchez has taken his chance with the Braves and run with it. In his six starts this season, Sanchez has posted a 2.37 ERA. When healthy, he’s been the stabilizing force in the back end of the rotation Braves hoped for when they signed him.

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But Sanchez recognizes that his role in accomplishing all those goals he had comes as much off the field as on it. On a team spurred by youthful energy, Sanchez knows the value of his experience.

In his 13 years in the league, he remains awed by the evolution of young talent. Right now, it’s that talent that’s propelling the Braves to success. With players such as Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies and others, Sanchez sees a breed of talent – with complete skill sets – that he doesn’t recall existed earlier in his career.

“Right now it’s different. Right now those guys have power, they’ve got a strong arm, they can run. They can do everything – one person,” Sanchez said. “I was talking with my friend Martin Prado about how fast this game is coming, how fast these guys are. The 19-year-olds look like veterans now.”

And if the Braves are going to accomplish all that Sanchez hoped, they likely will need the rookie, Soroka, to perform like a veteran. Sanchez can help.

When Sanchez and Soroka were on the DL at the same time, the two spent time together. They played catch together and talked about Soroka’s arm angle. Sanchez acted as a mentor of sorts – he sees a young player just starting to understand the complexity of being a major league pitcher, mentally and physically.

“He’s going to be really good,” Sanchez said. “As soon as he’s healthy and he’s able to pitch every five days, feel comfortable on the mound. Baseball, you spend a lot of time recognizing how good you are because every five days for me, when I was a rookie, was, ‘I need to do good, I need to do good.’ It takes time to prepare your mind, like, ‘It’s my day. No matter what will happen, I just have to put my all effort.’”

In helping Soroka, Sanchez harkens back to a player Braves fans know well.

When he was a minor leaguer, Sanchez maintained his fastball in the upper-90s. But his velocity alone, his coaches told him, wouldn’t be enough to sustain success as he progressed. 

“The pitching coach took me to the video room, and he told me how Greg Maddux pitched,” Sanchez said. “He said, ‘You see the speed of this guy?’ – like 85-86-88. But he paints the corners. After that, I threw the ball 92-93. So when I needed it, I threw 98-99. From then, that’s my key. Hit the corners as much as I can.”

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