PORT ST. LUCIE — Whenever Alex Sanabia needs a reminder of what it looks like when he is on top of his game, he watches the film from the dozen big-league starts he made for the Marlins in 2010.
“It was a great time for me — I was 21 and having fun,” said Sanabia, who made his first start of the spring Saturday against the Mets. “That’s what I want to get back to.”
Sanabia, who turns 25 on Sept. 8, is hoping he earns the opportunity to start for the Marlins — and shine — again this season. After being slowed by a strained elbow in 2011 and then spending the first half of the 2012 season in Triple A before straining his oblique, the 6-2, 205-pound right-hander entered this spring as one of five players with an opportunity to land the fifth spot in the starting rotation.
On Saturday, Sanabia tossed two scoreless innings in a 8-8 tie with the Mets at Tradition Field. He threw a total of 28 pitches for 16 strikes and produced four fly outs, a ground out and one strikeout.
Hardly a dominant performance, but those type of efforts are typical of the former 32nd-round pick. For Sanabia, who has a two-seam fastball that tops out at 91 mph, a changeup and a slider he’s still working on, good days have always been about pitching to contact and getting outs.
“I thought he did a nice job,” manager Mike Redmond said. “He missed on a few pitches outside the zone early but got himself back on track and did what he needed to do. I thought he looked good.”
Three years ago Sanabia quickly climbed the ranks through the Marlins farm system. After going 5-1 with a 2.03 ERA in 14 starts in his first season at Double A Jacksonville, Sanabia got promoted to Triple A New Orleans and made just two starts (he went 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA) before the Marlins called him up to the big leagues. He made his major-league debut in relief at Baltimore and struck out the first two hitters he faced.
“Those are the type of memories you never forget,” Sanabia said.
With Chris Volstad struggling, the Marlins decided two weeks later to put Sanabia into the rotation after three relief appearances. He didn’t disappoint, going 5-2 with a 3.66 ERA, 37 strikeouts and 15 walks. The Marlins went 8-4 in the games Sanabia started.
Now he hopes what he did three years ago will not be the peak of his career.
After entering the 2011 season with high hopes, Sanabia bombed in spring training, going 0-2 with a 16.87 ERA in two starts that lasted just 2 2/3 innings. He started the season in the minors and on the disabled list with elbow discomfort. After going 0-5 with a 5.75 ERA in nine minor-league starts that season, the Marlins called him up in September to help fill in for an injured Josh Johnson. Sanabia went 0-2 with a 3.27 ERA in three appearances, two starts.
Last spring, with Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano new to the rotation, Sanabia knew he had no shot of making the big-league roster. Things started well in New Orleans. In his first 14 starts, he went 6-4 with a 3.16 ERA and had the lowest ERA and WHIP on the team. But a strained oblique quickly landed Sanabia back on the disabled list, and he finished the year 0-3 with a combined 13.50 ERA in his last three starts.
“Everything I’ve gone through has definitely made me work harder so I can get back to where I once was,” Sanabia said. “I’ve always tried to take the positive out of the negative. Hopefully, I can give myself an opportunity to make the team or get a better look.”
• First baseman Joe Mahoney, competing with Casey Kotchman to be the Marlins’ Opening Day first baseman because Logan Morrison is still recovering from right knee surgery, hit a pair of home runs and finished with four RBI Saturday.
The Orioles’ 2010 Minor League Player of the Year hit a solo shot off Collin McHugh in the fourth inning and then a three-run shot an inning later off Hansel Robles.
“What was big for me [Saturday] was pitch selection, getting changeups up over the plate and being selective,” said Mahoney, who is 5 for 14 (.357) this spring with five RBI.