Sánchez turns back time with first win since 2020 (updated)

Throughout this long season, from the interminably long stint on the injured list with a neck strain to his struggles on the mound once he did return, Davey Martinez insisted Aníbal Sánchez just needed time. Give the right-hander time, the manager said, and he would prove he can still pitch at this level.

So the Nationals gave Sánchez all the time he needed, from that three-month IL stint to his first five starts that resulted in five losses and a 7.56 ERA. And wouldn’t you know what happened after that? The 38-year-old indeed is proving he can still pitch at this level, capped off by his best performance in two years this evening.

With seven innings of one-run ball, Sánchez shut down the Athletics to earn his first win since September 2020 and lead the Nats to a 5-1 victory that also included some bright moments for a few of their much younger building blocks.

This represented the first time Sánchez reached the seventh inning in a big league game since Aug. 23, 2020 in a win over the Marlins. The previous time he had done it? Game 1 of the 2019 NLCS in St. Louis, when he carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning.

"I knew he still had it in him," Martinez said. "I saw him this winter throwing. He was passionate about coming back, and his heart was in it. He was hurt, and now he's just out there fully healthy and pitching well."

There wasn’t nearly as much as stake tonight against the second-worst team in baseball as there was in some of those memorable starts of yore, but that didn’t make this an insignificant achievement for Sánchez, who slowly but surely is rewarding the Nationals for sticking with him. Over his last three starts, he has allowed a total of two runs on six hits while tossing 16 1/3 innings.

"It's good," he said with a laugh. "I think I still have it."

That doesn’t make him any more a part of the organization’s plan beyond this season. He’s not the future around here. But for a team desperate for healthy pitching down the stretch, Sánchez (who donned jersey No. 19 tonight for the first time since 2020) is a welcome presence.

The lone run Sánchez allowed tonight came via Dermis Garcia’s 467-foot homer in the top of the second. Otherwise, he scattered a couple of singles among three walks, never letting Oakland get any kind of rally going. And when he walked off the mound after an inning-ending double play in the seventh, he got a nice ovation from a paid crowd of 26,416 and a bunch of high-fives from his teammates in the dugout.

"I know at the beginning of this season, that looked like it was impossible," he said. "Today, I felt really good. Something I did was try to throw more strikes than normal to get quick outs. The other thing was, I don't think I've ever faced so many righties in one lineup (eight of nine starters). I tried to not make a mistake. I tried to execute to get everyone to make quick outs."

Unlike Tuesday’s series opener, the Nationals started off slowly at the plate. A’s starter James Kaprielian opened his evening by retiring the first six batters he faced on a scant 22 pitches. And through the fourth, he had a shutout going on only 53 pitches. But then came a much-needed rally in the bottom of the fifth, spurred by some small ball from the bottom of the Nats lineup.

The rally was kick-started by CJ Abrams, who finally drew his first walk since joining the Nationals, then showed off his legs by going first to third without breaking stride when Oakland second baseman Jonah Bride couldn’t handle Ildemaro Vargas’ chopper to the right side.

"I saw him bobble it, and I figured I could make it," Abrams said, "So I just kept going."

With runners now on the corners and nobody out, Josh Palacios poked an opposite-field single to left, driving in his team’s first run of the game and making the most of his rare opportunity to start in place of Victor Robles. Luis García followed with his own opposite-field single, showing off his bat control skills, to give the Nationals the lead.

And when Luke Voit provided the longball (a two-run homer to right-center) to go along with the earlier small ball, the Nats had themselves a four-run rally and a three-run lead for their veteran starter.

Another RBI double by Vargas in the sixth would extend the lead to 5-1. And when Carl Edwards Jr. and Kyle Finnegan finished it off out of the bullpen, the Nationals celebrated a well-played victory made possible in large part by the 38-year-old right-hander who is starting to reward them for their patience.

"It's honestly pretty impressive," Voit said. "He still holds guys on (first base) like he's still a young buck in the league. He's still got a great pickoff move. For him to go out there and attack guys ... Hopefully these young guys are watching him. Even in tough times, you can always get out of it."

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