Why was Aníbal Sánchez – 38 years old, out of the majors for nearly two seasons, surely not part of the Nationals’ long-term plan – starting against the Braves tonight on South Capitol Street? Because the Nats simply did not have any other viable options at this point.
Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross are injured. So are Jackson Tetreault and Evan Lee. Josh Rogers is still working his way back from the injured list. Joan Adon needs to spend some time at Triple-A to get some things straightened out. Cade Cavalli and Cole Henry have been deemed by the organization not ready for their big league debuts.
So here Davey Martinez found himself tonight, handing the ball to a stalwart of his 2019 World Series rotation who hadn’t come close to pitching up to that standard since. And though he did get charged with the loss after serving up two homers in five innings during a 5-4 defeat, it’s hard to deny Sánchez looked far better than anyone reasonably expected he would at the outset.
"He pitched really well overall," Martinez said. "The first inning, I think he had a little bit of jitters, believe it or not. But then he settled down, and he was throwing the ball really, really well."
The Nationals lost for the 13th time in 14 games – they’ve also lost seven straight to the Braves over the last month – not because of their aging starting pitcher, but because of yet another too-little, too-late offensive performance.
Josh Bell’s first-inning solo homer seemed to get them going on the right track for a change. But they scored only one run despite loading the bases with nobody out in the second, failed to score despite three straight hits in the fifth and couldn’t muster enough of a rally late to finish a comeback attempt.
Juan Soto would do his part with a single and a double to extend his career-best hitting streak to 16 games, but that single actually resulted in an out at the plate when Atlanta center fielder Michael Harris II fired a laser to nail an awkwardly sliding Luis García for a key out.
"When I rounded the bag, I had my head down," García said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "And as I lifted my head, I saw (catcher Travis d'Arnaud) just standing there. He wasn't really moving, so I kind of hesitated. And unfortunately, when I slid, I slid across and into him."
Soto did score a run in the eighth on Nelson Cruz’s seeing-eye RBI single past a lunging Robinson Canó, and Maikel Franco did homer off Kenley Jansen with one out in the ninth, but the Nats needed more than that to take full advantage of another strong bullpen performance that included two scoreless innings from Tyler Clippard in his 415th appearance as a National, his first since 2014.
"It felt fun, man," the 37-year-old reliever said. "That run in from the bullpen was probably the coolest part for me. I haven't felt that good running in a long time."
Clippard’s return to this mound eight years and eight franchises removed from his last game here as a member of the home team gave the crowd of 25,577 reason to smile and salute the club’s all-time leader in pitching appearances. But Sánchez’s time on the mound earlier in the evening was the bigger storyline.
"We talked about this before, about him working to get back," Davey Martinez said. "He put in a lot of time to get back and get healthy. To see him go out there and have it come to fruition, it was awesome."
Ten pitches into this game, it wasn’t inappropriate to wonder if it was a mistake putting Sánchez (who spent the last 3 1/2 months rehabbing from a neck injury) out there in the first place. He opened his first major league outing in two years with a five-pitch walk of Ronald Acuña Jr., who then stole second and took third on Keibert Ruiz’s wide throw. And when Dansby Swanson belted a changeup deep to left for a quick 2-0 lead, Sánchez looked like he was in deep, deep trouble.
To his credit, the wily veteran immediately figured things out and proceeded to dominate – yes, dominate – one of the toughest lineups in the league. For a sustained stretch, Sánchez retired 11 of 12 batters faced, the only one who reached doing so via walk. He struck out four of them, including Swanson, and returned for the fifth in as good a position as anyone could’ve imagined when the day began.
"I think the sequence against Swanson wasn't what I was working for," he said, referring to the first-inning homer. "I (finished) the inning out, and when I went back to the dugout, I talked with (catcher Keibert) Ruiz about the sequences. Because we've got a misunderstanding right there. And (after) then, we were in sync."
The Braves got a couple singles off Sánchez to open the fifth, but he rebounded to induce Canó’s second double-play grounder of the night. And when he got two strikes on Michael Harris II, he found himself one pitch away from getting out of the inning to seal a really solid start.
Alas, despite throwing the kitchen sink at Harris, Sánchez could not retire the dynamic rookie center fielder, who launched the 10th pitch of the at-bat to right for a two-run homer to put a real damper on the evening for the 38-year-old pitcher.
"I tried to go away with my cutter, inside with my fastball, tried to mix a lot," he said. "I threw the slow changeup, he got a foul ball, too. Sometimes, that kind of at-bat, it makes the outing harder."
Even so, the fact Sánchez struck out five over five innings, throwing 90 pitches – the hardest of which clocked in at 92 mph, the softest of which registered just 60 mph – under these circumstances had to be considered a positive development for the Nationals.
"For two years off, I feel really, really good," he said. "The Braves right now are a pretty hot team. I made two mistakes, and they took advantage of that."