MIAMI – The notion of Aníbal Sánchez wrapping up the season as the Nationals’ most consistently effective starter would’ve sounded ludicrous two months ago, when the notion of Sánchez still being a member of the Nats rotation seemed far-fetched.
Funny how things play out, though, because as the 2022 campaign winds down there’s really no disputing the fact that the Nationals’ best starter has been a 38-year-old right-hander who sat out the entire 2021 season and then missed 3 1/2 months this season with a neck injury.
Sánchez added another impressive chapter to his out-of-nowhere resurgence this afternoon, tossing five scoreless innings and allowing only two hits to the Marlins during a feel-good, 6-1 victory over the franchise for whom he made his major league debut 16 long years ago.
Thanks to the efforts of Sánchez, four relievers, another Joey Meneses home run and three hits from CJ Abrams, the Nationals left town with one win to salvage the weekend. They end their season series against the Marlins with an abysmal 4-15 record, but today’s win at least ensured they didn’t drop a 16th game to one opponent for the first time in club history.
They also avoided reaching the 100-loss mark for the first time since 2009, though it will take a perfect 10-0 finish now against the Braves, Phillies and Mets to prevent that inevitable event from occurring.
Sánchez, though, stole the show again this afternoon to continue his remarkable comeback. He wasn’t all that efficient (95 pitches in five innings) but he allowed a total of two singles and two walks, nothing else, before departing.
That means over his last seven starts, Sánchez now sports a minuscule 1.31 ERA, having allowed only five total runs and 16 hits across 34 1/3 innings. Sánchez’s ERA on Aug. 13 was 7.20. One more scoreless inning, and he’ll have it down to 3.99.
"You know, I always in September pitch good," Sánchez said. "I don't know why, but always in the last month I pitch good. Probably the hitters are tired. I don't know. I always prepare in the offseason for the last two months, always thinking about September and October."
Just as they did Friday and Saturday, the Nationals jumped out to a quick lead in the top of the first. Unlike the previous two nights, they actually added to that lead in subsequent innings, though they sure made life as difficult as possible for themselves thanks to a couple of outs on the bases that weren’t entirely their fault.
Meneses’ two-run homer to center, the 30-year-old rookie’s 12th in 46 career games, got things jumpstarted in the top of the first and seemed to portend a long-awaited, big afternoon at the plate for the lineup at large.
"When he gets ready and he's on time, he's ready to hit any pitch," manager Davey Martinez said. "And for us the last couple days, we've preached a lot with these guys pitching, we've got to be ready early, try to get a ball in the strike zone early. The last two days, he's done that."
Singles by Abrams and Ildemaro Vargas to open the top of the second also put them in position to add on, and when Abrams slid across the plate on Victor Robles’ well-executed safety squeeze, the Nats appeared to have a 3-0 lead. They did, until Marlins catcher Nick Fortes jogged toward the visitors’ dugout and tagged Abrams as he was heading down the stairs, then looked back at Bill Miller and watched the plate umpire give the out signal.
A confused Nationals dugout immediately challenged the call, and though it looked like Abrams’ heel might have touched the plate, it was conclusive enough for officials in New York to overturn the original call, denying the team a run.
"He didn't say I was safe or out," Abrams said. "I kind of looked back as I was walking toward the dugout, and he tagged. I don't know, it is what it is."
Things would only get stranger from there. Robles would put down another bunt with Abrams on second base in the top of the fourth and watch as Marlins starter Edward Cabrera’s left ankle buckled as he tried to field the ball. On the ground in obvious pain for several minutes, Cabrera eventually got up, threw several warm-up pitches and tried to convince manager Don Mattingly to let him remain in the game. Mattingly, who announced this morning he will step down at season’s end, wouldn’t let Cabrera take the risk, so he signaled to his bullpen.
After a long delay for reliever Jeff Brigham to warm up, Robles immediately stole second base on his first pitch, with Fortes’ throw plunking him on the fly because neither Marlins middle infielder bothered to cover. As the ball squirted away, Abrams raced home to make it 3-0 in bizarre fashion.
"We've got speed on this team," Abrams said. "It's always good to get an extra 90 feet, score more runs."
There were multiple opportunities for the Nationals to tack on more runs than that, but they were done in by a lack of clutch hitting and another out made on the bases when Luke Voit tried to take second on a single to right that was bobbled, only to be thrown out to kill a fifth-inning rally. They did finally add on late with two runs in the eighth and another in the ninth.
Not that they needed all that, though, because these days, a couple of runs is plenty of support for Sánchez. Who could’ve possibly imagined that two months ago?
"He's going to go out there and compete," Martinez said. "When he's on, he mixes all his pitches up. When he attacks the strike zone, gets ahead, he's done really well. He's been pitching really well. He goes out there, and I just watch him mix all his pitches up and get outs."