Baseball's arms race starts in Venezuela

Then there are the youngsters -- Seattle's Felix Hernandez, who at age 20 already has 15 major league wins and a shutout; and the Marlins' Sanchez, who beat the Yankees at Yankee Stadium in his major league debut and then no-hit the Diamondbacks two months later.

"Good way to start his career," Santana says of Sanchez. "Hopefully, he keeps everything going."

The son of a delivery truck driver from a poor neighborhood in the north-central city of Maracay, Sanchez might have made the most unusual trip to major league stardom of them all. It was a trip that almost ended before it had much of a chance to start.

Two years after he signed with the Red Sox as a 17-year-old, Sanchez underwent surgery to transpose a nerve in his pitching arm.

"Going through surgery, it's very frustrating," he says. "You think they're going to get rid of you. It was ugly. I prayed a lot."

Prayer -- plus long hours in rehab -- apparently worked, because he came back strong enough to win Pitcher of the Year honors at Lowell of the New York-Penn League in 2004; and then ended 2005 at Double-A Portland, where he struck out 83 batters in 57 1/3 innings.

Dealt to Florida last year in the Thanksgiving Day blockbuster trade that sent Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell to Boston, Sanchez came to spring training intent on winning a spot in the Marlins' rotation. But he was derailed by injury again, as shoulder trouble severely limited his Grapefruit League activity. He started the season in Double-A.

"He was down. But the interesting thing is, the last thing he said to me was 'I'll be back,'" Marlins manager Joe Girardi says. "And the first thing he said to me when he got back was, 'I told you I'd be back.'"

That return came in June, but it too, didn't follow a conventional path. Rained out of a Saturday game at Yankee Stadium, the Marlins needed a minor league starter for Game 2 of the doubleheader they'd play the next day. Yusmeiro Petit, their first choice, had pitched the day before; Renyel Pinto, their second, was already on the mound for Triple-A Albuquerque.

"The plan," says Wayne Rosenthal, the Marlins' minor league pitching coordinator, "was for him to make the start, then go right back down."

Those plans changed when the 22-year-old right-hander shut out the Yankees for 5 2/3 innings, becoming just the second visiting rookie in a decade to win his big-league debut at Yankee Stadium. (Toronto's Gustavo Chacin, on Sept. 20, 2004, is the other.)

Two starts later, he beat Roger Clemens, blanking the Astros on two hits through seven innings, adding to a scoreless inning streak that would reach a franchise rookie-record 23 in a row. Then came the no-hitter, followed by an important wild-card race win over the New York Mets that lifted his record to 8-2 and dropped his ERA to a staff-best 2.96 -- far superior to the 3-6, 3.15 numbers he posted in the minors.

"His stuff has gotten so much better up [in the majors] than it was down there," Rosenthal says of Sanchez, who, with control of four pitches, is the most complete pitcher of the Marlins' four rookie starters. "I saw some games where his fastball command was unbelievable. His slider has gotten so much better. His curveball, his changeup's been dropping.

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