NLCS Takeaways: Nationals’ Anibal Sanchez pitches gem in Game 1

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

In 2017, when a 33-year-old Anibal Sanchez was rocking a 6.41 ERA for the Detroit Tigers and a 28-year-old Miles Mikolas was pitching for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, you might not have believed the time traveller who told you those two right-handers would be starting Game 1 of the National League Championship Series a couple years later.

And you really wouldn’t have believed them when they said it was a pitcher’s duel and that one of the two carried a no-hitter into the eighth. But there Sanchez and Mikolas were, going back and forth in Game 1 of the NLCS Friday night. They were both good, but Sanchez was great, falling just four outs shy of the third no-hitter in MLB history.

For that reason and more, the Nationals won 2-0, to take a one-game lead in the series. And here are your takeaways.

Sanchez’s gem

Through the six games it took them to qualify for the NLCS, the Nationals asked Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin to pitch two-thirds of the club’s innings. You can see why. Washington’s bullpen ERA (5.68) was second-worst to only the semi-pro Baltimore Orioles this season. And over those half-dozen post-season games, the club’s relievers had already allowed 14 runs on 21 hits and nine walks in 19 innings.

Nationals manager Davey Martinez simply doesn’t have many options he trusts. He has the aforementioned three, plus relievers Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle — and that’s about it. Credit to him for finding a way to get through a five-game series with so little. But he was going to need more contributions from his staff to win over seven.

Enter Sanchez. The Nationals starter gave Martinez exactly what he needed Friday, carrying a no-hitter through 7.2 innings before the Cardinals finally broke it up. The 35-year-old is your classic crafty veteran relying on unpredictability and guile to gets outs late in his career with diminished stuff. And that’s exactly what Sanchez displayed Friday.

Longest Individual No-Hit Bids in Post-Season History

Player Team Date Innings Pitched
Dan Larsen Yankees Oct. 8, 1956 9*
Roy Halladay Phillies Oct. 6, 2010 9
Bill Bevens Yankees Oct. 3, 1947 8.2
Anibal Sanchez Nationals Oct. 11, 2019 7.2
Jim Lonborg Red Sox Oct. 5, 1967 7.2
Red Ruffing Yankees Sept. 30, 1942 7.2

* Perfect Game

 

He located four-seamers, sinkers, and cutters inside to right-handers and away from left-handers. He spun splitters down beneath the zone to everybody. He tossed up a half-dozen fluttering floaters between 66 and 75-m.p.h. that can best be described as change-ups. He broke out a few surprise curveballs and even got an ugly swinging strike with it.

He averaged 89-m.p.h. with his four-seamer, not quite touching 93 with the hardest pitch he threw all night. He breezed through five innings on only 55 pitches. He kept his no-hitter going through seven on only 89 as the Cardinals tried to grind out plate appearances. He got five outs on the ground and nine in the air, which was a fine way to live on a cold Missouri night when the ball refused to fly. Twice he let a Cardinals runner touch third, and twice he got out of it.

He even got the definitive defensive gem that every no-hitter seems to include when Ryan Zimmerman stabbed a Tommy Edman liner at first in the eighth:

But it wasn’t to be. With two out in the eighth and a full count on Jose Martinez, Sanchez left one of those splitters just a little too high in the zone. Martinez shot it into centre. It was Sanchez’s 103rd and final pitch.

The rest of the way

For as much as Davey Martinez needed a great start, and as much as he obviously wanted Sanchez to complete the no-hitter, he couldn’t have been too upset with that eighth-inning single. Because if Sanchez had gotten an out, and the Nationals lead remained at only two runs, Martinez would’ve faced a very tough decision for the bottom of the ninth.

Would he send his soft-tossing starter back out, on 100-plus pitches, making his fourth trip through the order, out of deference to the historical feat Sanchez was attempting to accomplish? Or would he buck tradition and lift Sanchez, bringing in a fresh arm to try to close the game out, which undeniably would’ve given his team its best chance at winning?

And what if Sanchez had gone back out and issued his third walk of the game or hit his third batter? What if he’d walked or hit Jose Martinez with two out in the eighth? At that point, one swing of the bat could not only break up the no-hitter, but tie the game. And not for nothing, Sanchez allowed 1.2 HR/9 this season, and has allowed 1.5 since 2015, the 19th-most among 224 qualified MLB pitchers over that span.

There’s a reason Martinez lifted Sanchez immediately after the hit was allowed. It was the right move to make. Martinez probably would’ve lifted Sanchez much earlier if he wasn’t chasing history. But it’s fascinating to wonder what he would’ve done if Sanchez kept the no-no going through the eighth.

Anyway, with Washington’s defacto closer Hudson away from the team for the birth of his child, it was Doolittle who took over and made quick work of Dexter Fowler to strand Martinez in the eighth. After seeing Sanchez all night, Doolittle’s 94-m.p.h. heaters probably looked closer to 98. He then worked a three-up, three-down ninth on only 10 pitches earning his second-career post-season save.

Mikolas keeps the Cardinals in it

Credit Cardinals starter Mikolas for keeping his team in the game while it struggled to get anything going against Sanchez. Mikolas wasn’t his sharpest, allowing seven hits while walking two over six innings, but practically every time he put runners on he was able to hone in on his location and get himself out of trouble, which is all that matters.

In the end, Mikolas allowed only a run, mixing and matching with a steady blend of fastballs, curveballs, and sliders to keep Nationals hitters guessing. He struck out seven, got eight outs on the ground, and two outs in that cold outfield air. The Cardinals will take one run over six from him every time out.

 

Offence up and down the lineup

Last we saw Howie Kendrick he was coming up with the biggest hit of his life, lifting a 10th inning grand slam off Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly to vanquish the NL’s best team and send the Nationals to the NLCS. His next time up, in the second inning Friday, he came through with another important knock, this time a leadoff double off Mikolas.

Kendrick came around to score the game’s first run two batters later when catcher and No. 8 hitter Yan Gomes drove a double of his own into the left-centre field gap:

Flash forward to the seventh and Kendrick was coming up big again, lobbing a two-out single into centre to cash Washington’s second run:

That’s the kind of offence from unlikely sources that teams can thrive on in the post-season. Kendrick’s a fine hitter and had a quietly remarkable year, putting up a 142 OPS+ over 370 plate appearances. But he’s 36 and when the Nationals acquired the versatile infielder in a minor trade in 2017, and then re-signed him to a meager two-year, $7-million contract the subsequent winter, it wasn’t to be an offensive focal point. Meanwhile, Gomes is a steady presence behind the plate. But he was hitting eighth on Friday for a reason.

And yet, there was Gomes coming up with his second knock of the game in the fifth, one that nearly sparked a Washington rally. Trea Turner singled and Anthony Rendon walked behind him, loading the bases for Juan Soto. The 20-year-old just missed a Mikolas curveball, grounding out to end the threat.

If the Nationals are going to advance, it will be on the backs of their most talented hitters —Turner, Rendon, and Soto. But when dependable veterans like Kendrick and Gomes can come through with some timely hitting in big moments, it makes things a lot easier.

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