Inside Aníbal Sánchez’s return to Nationals rotation after year off

Aníbal Sánchez was sitting at home on his couch when he realized he was missing something. The adrenaline rush of pitching in a major league game, something he experienced for 14 straight years, was calling. 

The Monday after Thanksgiving, one of Sánchez’s friends wanted to work on his mechanics. As the two began throwing, Sánchez realized that his arm felt really good. Good enough to pitch in the big leagues. And to feel that adrenaline rush again. Despite nearing 40 years old and out of the big leagues for a full season, maybe it was time for that arm to make a comeback. 

“OK, yeah, I just got to take a shot,” Sánchez told himself. 

Taking and hitting that shot required not just spending less time with his family, but also getting his arm back into shape after a year of traveling with family and staying long enough for a cup of coffee with the Venezuelan national team. Sánchez had sat out the entire 2021 season due to COVID-19 concerns and not receiving a contract that pleased him. But here was his chance. His arm felt good, he wanted his 4-year-old son, Aníbal Jr., to have a chance to experience a big league clubhouse, and perhaps most importantly, he missed the game. 

Things “took off” after that late-November workout, Sánchez said. He prepared to pitch in the majors again, signed a minor league deal with the Nationals and showed enough to make their opening day roster. Then, faced with another hurdle — a neck injury suffered right before his first start that sent him to the 60-day injured list — Sánchez refused to call it quits for good, and when he eventually made his first major league start in 22 months against the Braves on July 14, Nationals manager Davey Martinez had Aníbal Jr. deliver the news. The elder Sánchez has made five starts since.

"Amazing, amazing,” Sánchez said, describing the feeling of returning to the majors. “For me, it's like another step, another goal, that I make and I feel good."

Sánchez admitted that coming back after sitting out an entire season is rare, and he had thoughts of retiring after the injury. But he was intent on continuing to work and honor his decision to sign with the team. 

"No, no, not right now,” he said, laughing, when asked if he seriously considered retiring. “I put a lot of effort to be here, so I just need to continue to do that. … I don't want to just quit just because I got injured."

As it stands now, Sánchez is focused on staying healthy and approaching things day by day. He isn’t looking too far into the future beyond spending time with his family this offseason. And his manager is optimistic that he’s beginning to turn a corner. After giving up four-plus runs in four of his first five starts, Sánchez allowed only three over five innings on Saturday against the Padres in a 4-3 Nats win. 

He's out there, he's competing, he's actually done fairly well for us, so it's good to have him back,” Martinez said. “I had to remind him that he missed, you know, almost three and a half, four months of the season, so he's almost playing catch up. Now, he's starting to feel a lot better, he's starting to pitch better, his location's been a lot better. So, you're starting to see the Aníbal that we've seen before, so it's good.”

The days of Sánchez posting double-digit win seasons and pitching in playoff rotations may be over, but the 38-year-old has still been able to leave his mark on this year’s Nats team. In addition to holding his spot in the rotation, Sánchez has given pointers to younger pitchers such as Josiah Gray and Cory Abbott while also spending lots of time working with young catcher and fellow Venezuelan Keibert Ruiz, an important piece of the Nats’ future. Ruiz said he’s watched Sánchez pitch for years, including once years ago while Sánchez was playing winter ball in Venezuela. 

Sánchez and Ruiz have worked on pitch sequencing, with the pitcher explaining the importance of throwing differently to a hitter each time he steps to the plate, especially with runners in scoring position. Sánchez has told Ruiz not to be afraid of calling certain pitches when he feels it’s appropriate, the catcher said. And when Sánchez feels it’s needed, he’ll step in and talk to the younger pitchers about changes they can make. 

I love having him. He's great in the clubhouse, great with the young kids,” Martinez said of Sánchez. “He's great for our catchers, Keibert, talks to Keibert a lot … So he's been awesome." 

"He's always trying to have fun, and obviously he's a veteran guy. Whenever he has his chance to talk to us younger players, you know he talks to me, to us, no matter what, tough games, just keep going, what's next. It's important to have a guy like that in the clubhouse,” Ruiz said.

Also around the clubhouse this season has been Aníbal Jr., who’s gotten to hang out with star players like Juan Soto. Having his son around the team was another reason for Sánchez to return to the big leagues this season. 

"It's a dream come true. That's why I'm here, because I want to give him the opportunity to be in the big league clubhouse … and he's enjoyed it a lot,” Sánchez said. 

Though Sánchez might not be around to see the zenith of this Nats rebuild, the pitcher is excited to be back pitching in D.C., excited to reunite with the club that he won a World Series with and, most of all, excited that he’s been rewarded after making not one but two comebacks to the big leagues over the past year. 

“It's got a lot of good memories, especially pitching in 2019, the year that we won the World Series, and these people, they're like a family here,” Sánchez said. 

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