Home confinement re-watch: 2019 NLCS Game 1

Because the wild card game, the National League Division Series and the World Series were so dramatic, with the Nationals fighting off elimination five times along the way, the NL Championship Series kind of gets lost in the shuffle when you think back to the 2019 postseason.

We know the Nats swept the Cardinals in four straight. They never even trailed at any point in any of the four games. It was as one-sided a postseason series as you're likely to see.

But let's give the NLCS more credit than that, because it was full of drama in its own kind of way. And that was on full display right off the bat in Game 1, which I re-watched for the first time yesterday.

I mean, there's plenty of drama in watching a guy come within four outs of pitching only the third no-hitter in postseason history, right? Especially when that guy is the fourth-best pitcher on the staff.

Sanchez-Throws-Blue-NLDS-Sidebar.jpgAs much as we rave about the performances of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin throughout the month, none of them did what Aníbal Sánchez did in Game 1 at Busch Stadium. (Well, Scherzer almost did in Game 2, but we'll save that one for tomorrow.)

Credit to the TBS crew (Brian Anderson, Ron Darling and Jeff Francoeur in the booth, Lauren Shehadi in the dugout) for talking up Sánchez before the game even began. They recognized he was just as important to the Nationals as the so-called "Big Three," and they only grew more impressed with his craft as the game progressed.

And they also made an appropriately big deal before first pitch about Daniel Hudson's absence from this game due to the birth of his third daughter. While the debate was raging on social media about Hudson's decision to stay in Phoenix with his wife and newborn, the TBS crew never questioned it one bit and accurately conveyed how supportive the Nats were of Hudson (while also pointing out the potential ramifications given the state of their bullpen, something that would become part of the story by night's end).

Sánchez was great, but it's worth noting how close he came to losing his no-hit bid right away in the bottom of the first. Dexter Fowler led off with a line drive down the right field line that easily could've been a double but landed just foul. Kolten Wong followed with a blooper down the left field line that easily could've fallen for another hit but also landed just foul.

And then Marcell Ozuna led off the bottom of the second driving a ball to deep center field, reacting as though he thought he got all of it, only to watch the ball die in the cold, 44-degree St. Louis air and fall harmlessly into Michael A. Taylor's glove.

Three close calls that could've gone the other way and spoiled Sánchez's bid for history.

The Nationals, meanwhile, put pressure on Miles Mikolas and the Cardinals bullpen throughout the game but had to scratch and claw for the two runs they scored. One of those came in the top of the second, via a pair of doubles: Howie Kendrick led the inning off with a two-bagger to right-center, then scored later when Yan Gomes sent a two-out RBI double to left-center. (After he and Kurt Suzuki combined to go 0-for-17 to begin the postseason, Gomes now had hits in back-to-back at-bats, and he would add a third straight his next time up.)

There was another intriguing moment in the bottom of the second, one that wouldn't have caused anyone to bat an eyelash at the time but in hindsight was a real "wow" moment. During Yadier Molina's at-bat with one out and nobody on, Sánchez and Gomes got crossed up on a pitch, with the catcher expecting a breaking ball and Sánchez throwing a fastball. The TBS crew then offered up this reaction:

Francoeur: "You don't see that too much with nobody on base."

Darling: "Teams are using multiple signs now, even with no one on base."

Anderson: "Snoopy cameras everywhere."

How about that? (For the record, Gomes did appear to give multiple signs several times with nobody on base, though he didn't do it all of the time.)

The real story, of course, was Sánchez, and after those couple of early close calls he didn't have any more for a long time. He retired the Cardinals in order the first time through the lineup, needing only 34 pitches to do it. He issued a five-pitch walk to Wong with one out in the fourth for the first baserunner of the night, and though Wong would end up on third base after a stolen base and an error on Gomes, he was stranded there.

The Cardinals would get another runner to third base in the sixth after Sánchez plunked pinch-hitter Randy Arozarena in the elbow. But this one again was stranded there, with the crafty right-hander wriggling out of the jam and keeping his no-hitter intact on only 75 pitches.

And yet the outcome of the game was still very much in question, because the Nationals could not take advantage of their many opportunities to add on. They loaded the bases in the fifth, only to watch as Juan Soto grounded out and then have Mikolas grab his nether regions while staring down the 20-year-old slugger in an apparent response to multiple "Soto Shuffles" during the at-bat. They had another runner in scoring position in the sixth after Ryan Zimmerman doubled (his seventh hit in 18 at-bats for the postseason to date) but left him stranded.

Finally, in the top of the seventh, the Nats got a much-needed insurance run home. Adam Eaton's one-out triple set the stage. Kendrick's two-out RBI single to center then brought his good friend home and extended the lead to 2-0.

Now all eyes were on Sánchez as he took the mound for the bottom of the seventh. For the first time, TBS' score-box graphic included the phrase "No-hitter through 6.1 IP," and Anderson wasn't afraid to utter the forbidden term on the air and risk the wrath of every fan in America who believes media members have the ability to jinx a no-hitter just by mentioning it. It's notable, though, that Davey Martinez was fully prepared to pull his starter at the first sign of trouble, having Tanner Rainey warm up as the seventh inning commenced.

Sánchez wouldn't need any help that inning; he hit Molina on the back with an 0-2 "butterfly" changeup but gave nothing else up and returned to the dugout with his pitch count still a manageable 89. Martinez let him bat for himself in the top of the eighth, but when the bottom of the inning opened both Rainey and Sean Doolittle were warming in the 'pen.

Now came the moment that perhaps made you believe something special really was going to happen on this night. Tommy Edman led off the bottom of the eighth by smoking a line drive to the right side, bringing a momentary cheer from the crowd ... until Zimmerman made one of the finest defensive plays of a career that has included countless candidates. With a full-extension, backhanded, diving catch of Edman's liner, he provided the kind of signature web gem that so often accompanies a no-hitter. The announcers mentioned it in the moment, and Sánchez himself would admit after the game that's the play that made him believe he could do it.

Alas, it wasn't meant to be. Two batters later, pinch-hitter José Martínez worked the count full and then sent a clean line-drive single to center for the Cardinals' first hit of the game. Davey Martinez didn't take any more chances and walked right to the mound to take the ball from Sánchez, who on his way out turned and waved toward José Martínez, offering his fellow Venezuelan praise for having ended his bid for history.

Doolittle now entered to turn Fowler around to the right side of the plate and easily disposed of him to end the eighth and set himself up to return for the ninth, with no other viable option to close the game since Hudson was watching from a hospital room in Phoenix.

Hudson and Co. had nothing to worry about. Doolittle stared down the heart of the St. Louis lineup in the bottom of the ninth and retired the side, making a tough play on Wong's leadoff bunt attempt and eventually striking out Ozuna with a high, 95 mph fastball to end the game and earn the save.

The Nationals, who had to use up every ounce of strength (and every elite pitcher on the staff) they had to win the wild card game and then survive a five-game NLDS with the Dodgers, had marched into Busch Stadium and shut down a Cardinals team that had just thumped the Braves 13-1 in its own NLDS Game 5 two days earlier.

Now they had stolen Game 1 of the NLCS, with Scherzer starting Game 2, Hudson set to rejoin the club and an opportunity to completely seize control of the series the next afternoon.

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