Flying into Sacramento International Airport with the Albuquerque Isotopes on Monday night, Jonathan Sanchez said he noticed a couple passengers on the commercial flight looking at him oddly. When the plane landed, the reason became clear: Giants fans.
"They said they were glad to see me back and they hope I'll go back to the big leagues," said Sanchez, the former Giants left-hander now pitching for the Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers. "They hoped I was going to go back to the Giants. I said I don't know – it's a business."
It's something Sanchez has come to know all too well over the last two years. Sanchez still has a distinct place in the memories of many Giants fans, the starter who could be alternately brilliant – as in his 2009 no-hitter against the Padres – and erratic, as when he led baseball in walks in 2010 despite having his best season with a 13-9 record, a 3.07 ERA and 205 strikeouts.
In three seasons since, though, Sanchez is 5-19 with a 6.21 ERA in the majors. The Giants dealt him to Kansas City after the 2011 season for Melky Cabrera, and Sanchez has since pitched for the Royals, Rockies and Pirates, going 0-12 in his last 18 big-league starts. After Pittsburgh released him in May, the Dodgers signed Sanchez to a minor-league deal as depth for an injury-beset rotation.
Sanchez has made eight starts for Albuquerque and said Tuesday he believes he's "getting back to who I was in 2010, those years in San Francisco."
"When I got to Kansas, everything was all right, it just didn't work out," Sanchez said of his partial season with the Royals, when he went 1-6 with a 7.76 ERA. "Everything went the wrong way. When I pitched, I gave my 100 percent out there and nothing worked. I gave my 100 percent, but I didn't have my best stuff out there."
The same thing happened with Colorado, and then this season with the Pirates, who dropped him after five outings in which he allowed seven home runs, 18 runs and 35 baserunners in 13 2/3 innings. Pinpointing the problem, he said, wasn't easy.
"I don't know if it was the change," Sanchez said. "I didn't think I was going to be traded (by the Giants) after seven years. I thought I was going to be a Giant for life. I don't know if that's why, but it didn't work out the right way. Now I'm getting to know the business, know the game."
Sanchez said he signed with the Dodgers in May because he "didn't want to go anywhere there wasn't a chance to go to the big leagues and the playoffs." The pitching situation in Los Angeles has stabilized, though, to the point where the Dodgers designated left-hander Ted Lilly for assignment last week after he returned from the disabled list to find no place in the rotation or the bullpen.
Sanchez had an opt-out clause in his contract if he wasn't in the majors by July 1. But he chose to remain in Triple A past that date, saying he "wasn't ready to go to the big leagues at that point." He's 4-1 with a 5.05 ERA for the Isotopes, and his last two outings have been two of his best – 10 strikeouts on July 23 and five shutout innings Monday, with a familiar line of three hits, five walks and six strikeouts.
"Right now, I'm feeling like how I was with the Giants," Sanchez said. "I'm getting back to who I was. Pitches are there, my arm feels good, my body feels good."
The past couple years, he acknowledged, have been "pretty hard, just trying to get back, working and not getting where I want to be." That, of course, is a major-league mound, and Sanchez said he believes an opportunity is still out there.
"You've just got to trust it," Sanchez said. "Just got to trust your stuff and keep working – that's the only way you get back to who you were is keep working and never give up."
Meanwhile, he returned Tuesday to Raley Field, a place he last visited as a Giants minor leaguer. Sanchez said he still keeps in touch with a couple former teammates, including Andres Torres and Sergio Romo. He didn't talk with Tim Lincecum after Lincecum no-hit the Padres on July 13 – nearly four years to the day after Sanchez came within a Juan Uribe error of perfection.
Another member of that 2010 title team may be joining him soon. The Dodgers on Tuesday signed former Giants closer Brian Wilson to a reported one-year deal, and Wilson is likely to spend time in the minors before joining Los Angeles.
"Can't wait," Sanchez said. "I want to see him. It's been a long time. When I got traded he texted me, he wished me good luck. He supported me. If I see him, we're going to chill and hang out."