Cristopher Sanchez was almost an afterthought four months ago.

The Phillies were coming into the season with four rotation spots locked up, and the fifth having a reserved sign hanging for top prospect Andrew Painter.

If Painter couldn’t start the season, then 2022 late-season hero Bailey Falter surely could step in. Sanchez was left to battle with last year’s long man Nick Nelson and San Francisco castoff Michael Plassmeyer for what would be the No. 7 spot.

Then things started to completely unravel – for everyone involved.

Painter would hurt his elbow and miss months.

Falter would win the job, completely implode at the major league level (0-7, 5.13 ERA, 1.438 WHIP) and after getting sent down, not handle the demotion well and stink in AAA as well (5.79 ERA, 1.643 WHIP).

Nelson would suffer a nagging hamstring injury in spring training, and have it flare up on him a couple of times during the season while rehabbing in the minors. Ultimately he’s made 11 minor league starts, six of them for AAA Lehigh Valley, where he’s lasted all of 20 innings, with a couple of black eyes for pitching stats – a 5.75ERA and a 1.820 WHIP.

Plassmeyer was so disappointing at Lehigh Valley (6.95 ERA, 1.682 WHIP) that the Phillies released him, he went unsigned, and they then resigned him to a minor league contract to get him off of a clogged 40-man roster.

As for Sanchez, he wasn’t much better.

He gave the Phillies a spot start on April 22nd against the lowly Colorado Rockies, went 4 1/3 innings allowing three runs and was immediately sent back down to Lehigh Valley, where he wasn’t very good. Heading into Memorial Day weekend, Sanchez had a 5.97 ERA and a 1.642 WHIP. The Phillies minor league staff decided to try him as a bulk reliever following an opener to see if having him start against a different spot in the lineup would jump start him. He pitched six shutout innings the first time they tried it and allowed just two runs in six innings the second time.

Then, on June 10, with the Iron Pigs slated for a doubleheader after losing a game to the Canadian smoke earlier in the week, Sanchez went back into a more traditional starting role an again threw six innings, this time allowing just one run.

It was almost like he figured something out in these three starts, because they were much different than every other start he’s had. And with each one he was throwing more strikes. He had 22 walks in his first 31 2/3 innings in AAA. Then he had four walks on May 28, two walks on June 4 and just one walk on June 10.

Filling the zone made him more effective. And his mix of pitches, eerily similar to that of Ranger Suarez, would potentially play at the major league level.

With the Phillies experiment of bullpen games for the No. 5 spot becoming too taxing on the relievers, Matt Strahm being monitored so he wouldn’t be overused and the waiver claim of Dylan Covey bringing somewhat uninspiring results, the Phillies decided to give Sanchez another try.

The first would come against the pitiful Oakland A’s. It was a success. The second would be against the New York Mets, who although they’ve won five in a row here to start July, waking up their fan base to think that they still have the goods to get back into the race (they don’t), they were in the midst of a terrible June swoon. That one went well too. The third came against the last place Nationals. Sanchez had success there as well.

He passed all those smaller tests, but the one that would be the true measuring stick for him personally, would be his fourth start – against the team with the best record in the American League, on the road – the Tampa Bay Rays.

And Sanchez would pass that test with flying colors.

It was one thing to pitch well against the Rays. It was another to do it in a game where there was little margin for error. The Phillies eventually gutted out a 3-1 win in 11 innings thanks to great pitching throughout and some timely offense in the top of the 11th, but they never would have gotten that far without Sanchez’s start.

The Phillies have now won 12 straight road games, matching the second-best streak in franchise history. They can tie the record set in 1976 with a win over the Miami Marlins Friday. It was also the first time the Rays have been swept in a series in 2023.

And how rare is a 12-game road winning streak? Let’s thank our Canadian media friends for this one:

Sanchez threw six innings, allowing just one run on four hits. He only had two strikeouts, but he took advantage of the Rays being aggressive at the plate and generated a lot of weak contact.

So far, in the four games since his recall, Sanchez has a 2.14 ERA and a 0.905 WHIP. He’s walked just two batters in those four outings.

If you combine his last seven appearances between AAA and with the Phillies you get the following stat line:

39 IP  30H  9R  8ER  9BB  32K  1.85ERA  1.000 WHIP

That’s pretty damn good.

And it’s unexpected production, but quality production that good teams get. There’s always talk how teams like the Braves and Dodgers seemingly have this unending train of pitchers who are in their system who can come up to the big leagues and pitch well, and darn it, why can’t the Phillies have that?

And Sanchez isn’t some kid prospect. He’s 26 years old now. He was originally signed by the Rays in 2013 as a 16-year-old. He’s been grinding for a while, and although he’s had a modicum of success in the minors, it hasn’t really translated in the majors, until now.

How the Phillies choose to deploy their rotation after the All-Star break next week remains to be seen, but looking at the way the calendar falls, it’s likely that they’ll want to use Sanchez to pitch one of the two games of a scheduled doubleheader against San Diego next Saturday. If that’s the case, Sanchez would then line up for starts against Cleveland and Pittsburgh before the trade deadline.

I wrote about why the Phillies situation with the No. 5 starter wasn’t as drastic as people were making it out to be last month, but I never thought they’d get this kind of production from Sanchez either. He can definitely get them to the trade deadline, and maybe even beyond (August starts would likely come against Miami, two against Washington, Minnesota and St. Louis).  So maybe the Phillies are like the Braves and Dodgers a little bit this year.

And teams who get those kinds of contributions from the depth of their roster (more on that below), are usually good enough to be playing late into October. Don’t just believe me either:

Sanchez, may be the last guy you thought would prove that the Phillies weren’t just a team that got on a hot run a season ago and are legitimate contenders to get back to the World Series again this year, but if nothing else, four months after the fact, he’s no longer an afterthought.

Miscellaneous observations

  • Matt Strahm earned the win in the game, and deservedly so. After the Phillies failed to score the ghost runner from second in the top of the 10th, Strahm came in and blew away the Rays in the bottom of the 10th, giving the Phillies another chance in the 11th, when they scored their two runs. Strahm then came out and pitched the 11th, allowing just one walk and securing the victory. After taking a week off following some tough outings in mid-June, Strahm looks like the pitcher he was for the first two months of the season. In his last five outings, Strahm has pitched 6 2/3 innings and allowed two hits and a walk with 11 strikeouts without yielding a run. He’s been dominant.
  • Yunior Marte is another guy who continues to impress. He had a big inning in the seventh replacing Sanchez and mowed down the middle of the Rays order by getting Randy Arozarena to pop out, striking out Isaac Paredes, who homered off Sanchez in his prior at bat, and inducing a groundout to third by Manuel Margot. He has allowed just three earned runs since May 20 leading to a 1.56 ERA in 17 innings with a WHIP of 0.981.
  • Garrett Stubbs had an underappreciated moment in the game. In the bottom of the ninth, with Arozarena batting, Craig Kimbrel thought he had him struck out with a 97MPH four-seamer that was right over the plate. Home plate umpire Charlie Ramos, who frankly, was terrible behind the dish for both teams, called it a ball and Kimbrel was visibly pissed. He then took an automatic ball on a pitch clock violation, and then jerked a fastball way wide and out of the zone. He came back to strike out Arozarena, but Kimbrel’s frustration carried into the next at bat against Paredes, as two more fastballs were way out of the zone. About to be dinged with another pitch clock violation, Stubbs noticed the clock and called time for a mound visit. He went out, calmed Kimbrel down, and the next three fastballs were all in the zone and fouled off before fooling Paredes with a knuckle curve that he tapped weakly to Bohm for a ground out. Stubbs settling Kimbrel down when he did ensured the game would get to extra innings.
  • Darick Hall entered his at bat against former Phillie Jake Diekman with a career .100 batting average against lefties (2-for-20). He then deposited a pitch into the right field bleachers.

He now has hits in consecutive at bats against lefties, including an RBI single on Wednesday. I still don’t think Hall is long for this roster (if Bryce Harper can play first base adequately, I would imagine the Phillies would rather recall Jake Cave to play left field and slide Kyle Schwarber into the DH spot), but Hall could put enough on his resume to be considered as a September 1 call up or even be included as a possible trade chip at the August 1 deadline.