LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The only thing drearier than the forecast was the prospect of the five-hour round trip from West Palm Beach for an exhibition game that might not even be played if the rain didn’t let up.
“Yeah, everybody was worrying about that,” Aníbal Sánchez said. “Especially hearing the team was driving many hours to be here. It’s really uncomfortable for both sides.”
It may have been uncomfortable, but the Nationals and Braves did manage to play a nine-inning game this afternoon without delay. The final outcome - the Nats won 3-2 thanks to a three-run ninth capped by Collin Cowgill’s go-ahead homer - was inconsequential to the more important development: Nobody got hurt on the wet field.
“I can’t believe we even played the whole game,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But hey, it turned out to be nice.”
Martinez played it safe with his team, pulling a couple of big leaguers in his lineup (Victor Robles, Wilmer Difo) after only two at-bats. He also watched Sánchez carefully, while at the same time recognizing the veteran right-hander needed to get a full day’s work in, no matter the conditions.
Sánchez had managed to make each of his previous four spring starts at home: three Grapefruit League outings, plus another on a back field in West Palm Beach while the rest of the team made the long trip across the state to Fort Myers.
There was no avoiding this one, though. With only two tune-ups remaining before the regular season begins, Sánchez needed to face a big league lineup, even if that meant making the two-and-a-half-hour drive up Florida’s Turnpike to Walt Disney World.
Not that Sánchez minded too much. He was excited to catch up with his Braves teammates from one year ago, teammates he befriended during a division title run but now ex-teammates he’ll be facing as a division rival the next two seasons.
“I had the opportunity to say hi to most of the guys over there and talk a little bit,” he said. “It was fun to come here and see those guys that I played with last year.”
Sánchez fared pretty well against that Atlanta lineup. He allowed two runs over his five innings, one scoring via an Ender Inciarte single off his glove, the other via Austin Riley’s solo homer to center. But he accomplished something that has been oh-so-elusive to Nationals pitchers over the years: striking out Freddie Freeman, this one on a first-inning changeup down and away.
(Sánchez pointed out Freeman did single to center on the same pitch in his next at-bat.)
There will be plenty more matchups with the Braves this season for Sánchez, who may have a firsthand scouting report on that lineup but also knows it’s not as simple as that.
“They are great hitters. They are great players,” he said. “No matter what, you have to prepare your game every time you’re going to face any team in the big leagues.”
The plan today was for Sánchez to get to 90 pitches. But when the fifth inning ended with his pitch count at 79 and the rain still falling, Martinez decided not to push his veteran starter any further.
And so Sánchez and company prepared for the long drive back to West Palm Beach. There’s an off-day tomorrow, then four more Grapefruit League games, then one final exhibition in D.C. against the Yankees (which he’ll start) before this thing gets underway for real.
“I feel good,” Sanchez said. “For me, nothing is over until the season is over. For me, tomorrow is another day. You need to prepare for your next one. Whatever happened today is done.”