ST. LOUIS - Throughout a childhood spent learning the game in Venezuela, throughout a decade in the minors that included lengthy stops at every level of the Nationals farm system, throughout the better part of his first two nights as a major leaguer, Adrian Sanchez had ample time to think about the first at-bat of his career.
Maybe it would come in a blowout. Maybe he’d actually get a chance to start a game. Maybe he’d be summoned to bat with the bases loaded and two out in the ninth inning of a one-run ... nah, that would never happen.
Until it did, and this 26-year-old rookie infielder who spent a lifetime dreaming of just this kind of opportunity suddenly found himself standing at the plate at Busch Stadium, the bases full of Nationals, a crowd of 43,614 roaring for Cardinals reliever Matt Bowman to record the final out of a 2-1 victory.
Having used up every other player on his bench during the course of a tight and eventful ballgame, Dusty Baker was left with no choice but to put the kid out there, hoping that 3,517 plate appearances in the minors suitably prepared him for this scenario.
“He was our last man,” Baker said. “But we knew that he was going to battle in that at-bat.”
Boy, did Sanchez battle. Despite falling behind in the count 0-2, he proceeded to foul off another offering from Bowman, then take three straight balls, then foul off two more pitches.
And then on Bowman’s ninth pitch, a 93-mph fastball thrown directly at the mitt of catcher Yadier Molina - set up six inches off the plate - Sanchez did the gutsiest thing possible in that situation. He kept the bat on his shoulder, trusting what his eyes were telling him.
“I saw it a little outside,” the rookie said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I think it was a little outside.”
The various electronic systems that chart major league pitches all concurred. Bowman’s 3-2 fastball was outside, roughly six inches outside. But those artificial systems are not empowered to make such a call. That responsibility still is afforded to the human beings who umpire baseball games.
And the umpire behind the plate tonight at Busch Stadium, Manny Gonzalez, deemed the pitch a strike, ending the game in dramatic fashion, and sending the Nationals back to their clubhouse to heap praise on Sanchez for his effort and bemoan the incorrect call that decided the game.
“The kid’s first at-bat, he wasn’t intimidated,” Baker said. “He was fighting off pitches. You hate to have an at-bat like that, and then it’s settled on apparently a bad call. You know, the kid’s trying to make a living, too. He tries to make his mark in the big leagues. ... It just wasn’t fair to him.”
The Nationals had the right to complain about the result of Sanchez’s at-bat, but they could blame only themselves for putting the rookie in that situation in the first place. Shut out for eight innings by Michael Wacha and three Cardinals relievers, they presented themselves only two at-bats with runners in scoring position to that point.
Finally, in the ninth, they mounted a rally against closer Trevor Rosenthal. Bryce Harper drew a leadoff walk, but Ryan Zimmerman struck out on a changeup. Daniel Murphy singled through the right side of the infield, but Anthony Rendon grounded to first base on the first pitch he saw.
One out away from suffering their first shutout loss of the year, the Nationals got new life thanks to Stephen Drew, who lined a ball just past a lunging Paul DeJong at shortstop, scoring Harper and keeping the rally going. Jose Lobaton, who only entered the game one inning earlier after starting catcher Matt Wieters was pulled for a pinch-runner and then proceeded to take a foul ball off his right forearm that required X-rays - the tests came back negative, so Lobaton avoided a fracture - then had to battle through his own impressive at-bat to draw a walk on a 3-2 pitch.
“I feel like the adrenaline makes you do a lot of things, but in that moment I wasn’t feeling anything,” Lobaton said, his arm wrapped in ice afterward. “I was just trying to do something for the team.”
The bases now loaded and Baker’s bench otherwise exhausted, Sanchez made the slow walk to the plate for a most unlikely first career at-bat. He had appeared in Friday night’s game, pinch-running in the top of the eighth and playing one inning at shortstop, but he had not come up to bat yet.
What was Sanchez telling himself as he waited while Cardinals manager Mike Matheny pulled Rosenthal in favor of Bowman?
“Well, don’t try to do too much,” he said. “Try to take a good, quality at-bat to get a good pitch to tie the game or put us on top.”
Sanchez’s at-bat was the very definition of a quality at-bat. That it ended the way it did left a clubhouse full of players and staff members frustrated, yet also encouraged by the approach of a young man who spent the last decade preparing for a moment like this and - in their eyes - didn’t disappoint one bit.
“He told me before the game: ‘I want to get my first at-bat. I’m excited,’” said Lobaton, a fellow Venezuelan whose locker sits next to Sanchez’s stall. “And I told him: ‘Just relax, because here you’re going to play.’ And then I saw him (come up to bat) after me. I was like: ‘Oh, whoa. What a situation.’
“He got a chance to tie the game or win the game. And it was a really good AB. So I feel like it’s something positive for him and for the team, too. We know that he’s ready.”