ST. LOUIS – It was not the game of his life, because Anibal Sanchez has, in fact, thrown a no-hitter.
It wasn’t necessarily the greatest playoff start of his life, because Anibal Sanchez has exited a late October start having yielded zero hits to an imposing lineup.
No, Friday night at Busch Stadium, Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, was merely Sanchez’s ode to evolution, to staying power and the art of pitching in an era when brute force and sheer velocity are the coin of the realm.
In stature and salary, he is the fourth member of the Washington Nationals’ rotation, but he nearly joined Don Larsen and Roy Halladay in an all-time rotation of three, falling four outs shy of holding the St. Louis Cardinals hitless and authoring just the third playoff no-hitter.
Certainly, when Sanchez’s Venezuelan countryman Jose Martinez battled him for seven pitches before dropping a single in front of Nationals center fielder Michael A. Taylor with two outs in the eighth, the disappointment was palpable. The game, even, was in doubt.
But after reliever Sean Doolittle secured the final four outs and a 2-0 victory, the Nationals had the first NLCS victory in their history and a 1-0 advantage over the Cardinals.
And the spotlight found a man often overshadowed on the radar gun, the stat sheet and the pay stub by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in the Nationals’ $549 million rotation.
Anibal Sanchez reacts after getting out the final out of the sixth inning. (Photo: Mark Humphrey, AP)
On this night, and perhaps in this postseason, the man guaranteed just $19 million of that loot may take a back seat to nobody.
“Tonight was vintage Anibal,” says Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who nearly escorted Sanchez into history with a startling eighth-inning grab that preserved the no-hitter.
“I’ve seen him do that for almost 15 years. But tonight was special. And it’s pretty to watch.”
Zimmerman and Sanchez, a pair of 35-year-olds seeking their first World Series titles, were NL East rookies in 2006, when Sanchez tossed his no-hitter on behalf of the Florida Marlins and routinely touched the mid-90s with his fastball.
Now, he seeks dominance in his deception.
When Sanchez pitches, the radar gun acts more like a roulette wheel: Spin it and the ball could land on any number, be it 66 or 92 or 81 or anywhere in between.
Friday, almost any number was a losing bet for the Cardinals.
Sanchez was perfect through three innings, needed just 75 pitches to navigate the first six and ultimately walked just one and struck out five, hitting two other batters.
One of those hit batsmen, Yadier Molina, might not have so much as a welt on his back: He wore an errant 66-mph changeup, a pitch so slow Sanchez and Gomes lovingly call it the mariposa, or butterfly.
Sure, hitting Molina wasn’t by design – it brought the tying run to the plate in the seventh before Sanchez induced from Matt Carpenter a harmless grounder to first – but everything else most certainly was.
GAME 1: Sanchez takes no-hitter into eighth inning
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His mix was exquisite – 24 changeups mixed with 39 sinkers or cutters and 29 fastballs.
Sanchez usually works with catcher Kurt Suzuki, but he sat out Game 1 after getting banged up in Game 5 of the Division Series in Los Angeles. So it was Gomes who game-planned with Sanchez pregame and had the privilege of guiding him later.
“Every pitch meant something,” says Gomes. “We were setting it up for something else. He was tremendous tonight, hitting every quadrant any time we needed to hit a spot. “When that starts happening you kind of start seeing a little bit of a guys trying to over-swing, trying to do a little bit more at the plate.
“For an outing like today it was just masterful. He was out there hitting every spot and doing whatever he wanted.”
It’s a distinct departure from the fiery Scherzer and surgically laconic Strasburg, who still live in the mid-to-upper 90s with their fastballs and typically feature a three-pitch mix. Corbin and his devastating slider joined the party this winter, at a premium price of $140 million over six seasons.
Sanchez? He was the winter afterthought, signing for two years and $19 million after reviving his career over the last half of 2018 in Atlanta.
He has his professional pride, but also realizes joining this collective is in its own right an honor.
“That rotation that I have right now is really, really special,” he says. “Being part of that for me, I feel proud. The team just gave me the opportunity to be here.
“And every time that I got the ball I just want to be competitive, especially to those guys and bring some wins for the team.”
His 11 wins, his 3.85 ERA and his modest radar gun readings only further made him blend in with the landscape. Sanchez pitched with Scherzer in Detroit, where in 2013 he authored six innings of no-hit ball in Game 1 of the ALCS, but could not see that through due to six walks.
This Game 1 was different, far likelier to keep Sanchez on the radar, even if he doesn’t light up the gun anymore.
“Nobody’s going to throw 94, 95 their whole career,” says Zimmerman. “He throws cutters now, he can add and subtract on all his pitches. Honestly, there’s not many of those guys left.”
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Is a national and foreign correspondent based in D.C. She files investigative reports and covers breaking news on a range of topics, including corruption, police shootings, etc. Before joining the TimWorld in 2018, she worked at the Miami Herald. She was a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University.