WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The fly ball off the bat of the Astros’ Michael Brantley sailed into short left-center field, no man’s land in the middle of three Nationals trying to make a play. But it dropped between left fielder Juan Soto, shortstop Trea Turner and center fielder Victor Robles for a one-out, first-inning single instead of a hustling out recorded.
After Carlos Correa’s single put runners at the corners, Yuli Gurriel lofted a ball down the right field line, with the Nationals’ Chuck Taylor stumbling and misplaying what could have been the frame’s third out into a run-scoring double. A few minutes later, Josh Reddick’s sacrifice fly scored Correa for a 2-0 lead.
On the mound, Aníbal Sánchez looked unfazed. It didn’t matter that the opening inning had been unnecessarily prolonged. Or that the extra outs he needed to record ran up his pitch count and deprived him of a planned third inning of work in his second Grapefruit League start.
No, Sánchez just redoubled his effort and went to work, managing to escape the inning without further damage. In the second, he shook off a leadoff double by Nick Tanielu and got the next three hitters in order.
“I liked what he did,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He didn’t have his great stuff, but as we know of him, he figures ways to get outs. And he did that well. The one inning, we missed a couple of fly balls we should have caught, and he just got through it.”
Allowing two runs on four hits and a walk over two innings might not constitute a stellar outing for most pitchers, but Sánchez made lemonade out of the lemons he was given. The Nationals won 4-2 behind a two-run tiebreaking single by Turner in the fourth.
“I feel good,” Sánchez said. “Just come out healthy. I think a lot of pitches are working really good. I missed a little bit, a couple pitch off the plate, and it put me a little bit in a high pitch count, but overall I think I feel really good.”
Once the eager rookie who gleaned whatever he could off experienced pitchers, Sánchez is now a veteran trying to make good on a two-year, $19 million contract he signed with the Nationals as a free agent. Now he’s the guy younger players go to for advice.
“I remember my first couple years in big league, the starting pitcher just come out and work some kind of pitch, and a veteran guy, to compete, just kind of see what pitch you got and something like that,” he said. “Now it’s different, it’s compete from the first day. So from the first day, you want to have a good outing and so a lot of people just prepare so much for everything right now, and that at the end it’s like a regular game.”
Even before Sánchez joined the Nationals, Martinez knew about his reputation as a competitor. But he’s seen a different side of the right-hander since he arrived in camp.
“Something that I really didn’t know until I talked to him and met him and seen what he does: He’s a leader,” Martinez said. “He’s a leader in the clubhouse, he keeps everybody loose. He kind of brings the Latin players together with everybody else and includes them in everything. ... He teaches every day. I know he’s worked with (Austin) Voth on his changeup. He’s always talking to the pitchers and catchers and the young players. It’s awesome to see.”
When Brantley’s pop fell in between three players in the first inning, a less experienced pitcher might have betrayed his feelings about the non-catch with poor body language. Sánchez has such respect from his teammates that Soto came to him in the dugout after the frame.
“Just a testament to him,” Martinez said of Sánchez. “The ball dropped. I talked to Juan. (Sánchez) comes over and Juan goes up to him and he says, ‘No worries, we’re all good. Go get the next one.’ To me, that’s awesome.”
It’s easy to forget that Soto had played only seven games in left field when he arrived in the majors as a 19-year-old last May. He’s still learning the position, and Martinez wants to make sure Soto learned something by pulling up and watching a ball fall for a hit.
“I honestly believe Juan should have actually caught the ball,” Martinez said. “They all went after it, assuming that each one of them was going to catch it. We don’t want to do that. I told Juan, as an outfielder coming in for the ball, you take precedence over the infielders every time. So if you think you can catch it, you gotta bust your butt to go get it. If you (can) catch it, call the infielders off, they’re getting out of the way.”