Before Wander Suero pitched a 1-2-3 top of the eighth, before Adam Eaton and Howie Kendrick hit back-to-back homers in the bottom of the eighth, before Sean Doolittle closed it out in the top of the ninth for the Nationals’ first save of the season, there was Aníbal Sánchez.
The Nats’ dramatic 3-2 win over the Pirates on Saturday wouldn’t have been possible without the late heroics of several key figures. But neither would it have been possible without the seven standout innings Sánchez provided before any of that.
“It was awesome,” manager Davey Martinez said. “It was good for him, too.”
The Nationals needed all seven of those innings from their starter, helping take some pressure off their revolving-door bullpen. Sánchez complied with his best outing of the young season, allowing two runs on seven hits.
There really were only a couple of hiccups along the way. In the fourth, Sánchez allowed a one-out triple to Josh Bell on a sinking liner to left that Juan Soto couldn’t keep in front of him. Moments later, Colin Moran doubled down the right field line to bring the first run home.
Two innings later, Sánchez made his one real pitching mistake. Up 0-2 in the count to Melky Cabrera, he grooved a slider over the plate and watched as the veteran outfielder drove it to right-center for a home run.
“Definitely was a bad location on that pitch,” Sánchez said. “I think I (should’ve) bounced it in front of the plate. I think it’s the only mistake that I made all day long.”
It was the second consecutive day the Nationals surrendered a home run on an 0-2 pitch, the 17th time the staff has done it since the start of the 2018 season (most in the majors).
The Cabrera solo homer looked like it would hold up as the decisive blow in a Pirates victory, but Eaton and Kendrick’s bigger blasts a few innings later changed the storyline. By that time, Sánchez had bounced back to complete the seventh inning, keeping his pitch count at an even 100.
That final inning was important for Sánchez, who knew he couldn’t afford to give the Pirates any insurance runs but also knew he couldn’t let his pitch count rise too quickly and give Martinez reason to go to his bullpen sooner than he preferred.
“I felt strong,” Sánchez said. “If I had to continue for the eighth, I had enough energy to be on the mound. So that’s really important for me.”
Add Sánchez’s start to a growing list of quality outings by the Nationals rotation. This was the third consecutive time their starter went at least six innings and allowed two or fewer runs. And it leaves the rotation having averaged 5.95 innings per start. That’s the highest average for any major league rotation to date.