LAKEWOOD, N.J. — Since Cole Hamels — the last of the four aces — departed at the trade deadline in 2015, the Phillies have used 17 pitchers to start a game.
Some of them you wanted to erase from memory as soon as possible. Others you knew were nothing but veteran placeholders. A few have provided hope for the future.
None of them has done anything to deserve a nickname like Thor or the Dark Knight, the godly and superhero monikers attached to the New York Mets' duo of Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey. Those kinds of designations are reserved for guys who can consistently throw in the mid to high 90s and break off secondary pitches that buckle knees.
You don't have to be a baseball scout to know when you've seen one of those guys. It's as obvious as the helpless expressions on the face of the hitters stepping in against them. You want to rebuild a franchise, insert a young, powerful ace into the mix and watch a ball club light up.
Possible superman: The Phillies might just have their superman and his real name is so good that he does not need a nickname.
Sixto Sanchez was a 74-mile drive away from Citizens Bank Park on Thursday night when he started the home opener for the Phillies' low-A Lakewood BlueClaws. Only 18 years old and with just three years of experience as a pitcher, the Dominican is likely to remain in that shore area community at least through June, if not the entire season.
Go see him if you get a chance. He's fun to watch and not just because the radar gun reveals that his fastball sits between 95 and 98 miles per hour. He's also one of the fastest workers you will ever see.
"I like to work fast so the hitters don't have a chance to think too much," Sanchez said through the interpretation of Nelson Prada, the hitting coach at Lakewood. "I catch the ball and I'm ready for the next pitch. I know what I want to do and sometimes it's tough for the hitters when you're ready to go."
Mickey Moniak, the first overall pick in last June's draft, has one of the best spots in the ballpark to watch Sanchez. The center fielder watched Sanchez post a 5-0 record and a 0.50 ERA in 11 starts in the Gulf Coast League last season and has also watched him pitch twice this year.
"Ever since the GCL last year, when he really came out of nowhere, whenever he pitched we knew we were going to win," Moniak said. "We knew we were going to get five scoreless innings. He's just that good. Watching him from center field is a great view. It's just effortless. The ball seems to move a little bit both ways, but he knows exactly where it's going."
Don't let number fool you: Sanchez, a 6-foot, 185-pound righthander, is 0-1 with a 4.66 ERA in his two starts this season, but do not be fooled by those numbers. In his season debut at Kannapolis, he struck out eight in 42/3 innings and was charged with four runs in the fifth even though two of them scored after he departed.
He was dominating in Lakewood's home opener Thursday — a 2-0 loss to Greensboro — allowing a single run on five hits in five innings while also striking out five without a walk. He threw first-pitch strikes to 14 of the 18 batters he faced and 50 of his 68 pitches were strikes.
"He just needs the experience of a full season," Lakewood pitching coach Brian Sweeney said. "This is a league that exposes you to a lot of different things: bus rides, cold weather, small ballparks, good hitters. He needs to be exposed to that and that is going to help his development."
Sanchez knows he has things to work on. He said refining his secondary pitches — a change-up and slider — top the list of his goals for this season. The only run he allowed against Greensboro came on a couple of fifth-inning singles when he left two sliders up in the zone.
"The first hit was an 0-2 pitch that he left up and that guy eventually scored," Sweeney said. "That's part of his development, too. He doesn't need to make the nastiest pitch 0-2. He just needs to make his pitches because he's plenty good enough. He gets to see that guy score and it goes in the back of his mind for next time."
Discovered by accident: Sanchez was discovered serendipitously in late 2014 when Phillies special assignment scout Bart Braun was sent to the Dominican Republic to look at a catcher. A converted shortstop, Sanchez was summoned along with several others to throw batting practice to the catcher. The Phillies never signed the catcher.
"They signed me five days later," Sanchez said.
Marty Malloy, the first-year manager at Lakewood, had the same reaction as most in the Phillies' organization when he saw Sanchez throw for the first time in spring training.
"Wow," Malloy said. "I mean, wow. He has the wow factor. Electric stuff. Day one when you see him you saw wow. He's that guy. He's way beyond his years."
That is obvious. It's equally apparent that the Phillies are in need of some "wow" and "electric stuff" in Philadelphia. So what's the estimated time of arrival for fast-working Sixto?
"I expect to be there in two or three years, God permitting," Sanchez said.
Sooner would be even better.