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Sanchez close to returning

            CHICAGO – Anibal Sanchez could be pitching for the Marlins as early as Tuesday, adding yet another arm to a staff that has changed dramatically in the past two weeks.

Sanchez, coming back from shoulder surgery, pitched seven innings Thursday night in what could be his final rehab assignment for the Double A Carolina Mudcats, and his next start might be in Miami against the Mets either Tuesday or Wednesday.

“He could have another (rehab), or he could be up here. He is that close,’’ said Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez.

The key to Thursday’s start for Sanchez was his pitch count: He threw 101 pitches over seven innings, striking out seven while walking four. He gave up three runs on six hits. His fastball has been clocked consistently in the 90s during his rehab starts, and Sanchez has said his main goal is not to worry about strikeouts and walks, but velocity and arm strength.

He could be a vital addition for a stretch run that includes the addition of Josh Johnson, who came back from Tommy John surgery and rejoined the rotation July 10, and rookie Chris Volstad, who made his first big league start July 11.

Now comes Sanchez, who was as good as any pitcher in baseball in the stretch run in 2006 when he went 5-1 with a 1.88 ERA in a September that was highlighted by his no-hitter against Arizona. Sanchez was 9-3 with a 2.27 ERA in the second half of 2006, but never felt 100 percent last season when he made only six starts. Sanchez hasn’t started a game in the majors since his May 2, 2007 start against the Mets – the team he could face this week in his return.

The addition of Johnson and Sanchez is the equivalent of adding two front line starters to the rotation.

“Getting (Johnson) back an getting Sanchez back is about as good as good as anybody out there we could have traded for,’’ Gonzalez said.

The Marlins will be even more guarded with Sanchez than they are with Johnson, because pitchers coming back from shoulder surgery are at a greater risk of re-injury than those coming back from Tommy John surgery.

“We will be careful with both of them,’’ Gonzalez said.