CHICAGO - The Nationals signed Aníbal Sánchez over the winter because they believed the veteran right-hander could duplicate his bounceback 2018 season with the Braves by virtue of his ability to induce weak contact.
For six weeks, it looked like a colossal mistake. Sánchez couldn’t get ahead of hitters, he couldn’t keep himself from issuing free passes and he couldn’t keep his ERA under 5.00.
A two-week stint on the injured list with a strained hamstring followed, and when Sánchez returned to the active roster everybody held their collective breath and hoped for the best.
They’re now getting the best.
Continuing an impressive metamorphosis from the struggling pitcher he was to begin the season into the dominant starter he is today, Sánchez cruised again tonight during the Nationals’ 12-1 trouncing of the White Sox, offering further evidence the 35-year-old can be the pitcher the Nats expected him to be all along.
“This is who I saw last year,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Watching him keeping the ball down, getting a lot of early swings and just working in and out with his fastball and mixing in his breaking pitches. He’s been really good.”
Sánchez retired 16 of the first 18 batters he faced, barely breaking a sweat on a 70-degree June evening on Chicago’s South Side that also saw Trea Turner finish a single shy of the cycle, Kurt Suzuki belt a grand slam, Matt Adams depart with an oblique strain and Trevor Rosenthal pitch a scoreless ninth in his first big league appearance in nearly seven weeks.
The White Sox did start making solid contact their third trip through the lineup against Sánchez, so Martinez pulled his starter even though he had thrown only 69 pitches in six innings plus one batter.
“I want him through September,” the manager said. “He was doing good. We had the lead.”
The abrupt exit didn’t diminish Sánchez’s effort one bit. He finished with one run allowed on four hits and one walk. And so in three starts now since coming off the IL, he’s 2-0 with a 1.04 ERA and 0.692 WHIP.
“When I get early contact, that’s good for me,” he said. “You get quick outs. I like that situation. ... I’m just trying to get ahead in the count. That’s helped me before, and it’s helping me right now.”
The Nationals made sure Sánchez’s outing was rewarded, thanks to a sustained offensive attack throughout the game. That included six insurance runs in the top of the ninth - Suzuki’s grand slam provided the final dagger - and that afforded Martinez the opportunity to put Rosenthal on the mound for his first big league appearance since April 24.
Rosenthal, who was sent to Harrisburg for a four-week rehab assignment to try to straighten himself out after he ended April with a 36.00 ERA, was given the ball with an 11-run lead. The right-hander threw five straight balls to begin his night, but he bounced back with three straight sliders over the plate to get a double-play grounder before finishing his first scoreless inning of the season, lowering his ERA to 27.00 in the process.
“It was good to have positive results,” Rosenthal said. “I’ve been looking forward to getting back out there. Hopefully, this is a stepping stone to keep building on for the rest of the season. Hopefully, I can just continue to help this team win.”
That the Nationals scored first tonight should have come as no surprise. They’ve now held a lead at some point in 18 of their last 19 games, evidence of how competitive they’ve been even in games they ultimately lost. And they manufactured their way to a 1-0 lead in the top of the second tonight, getting a leadoff walk from Howie Kendrick, a single by Adams and a sacrifice fly from Suzuki.
Then Turner took over as only he and a few other ballplayers who possess his skill set can.
The Nats’ leadoff man opened the top of the third with a ball down the right field line, turning on the jets to reach third with a triple. He would score moments later on Adam Eaton’s bloop single to center.
Two innings later, Turner showed off his power stroke, belting a 425-foot homer to left, his second in as many days. If ever there was encouraging evidence that his fractured right index finger is healing, these last 24 hours have offered it.
“I just feel like I’m in a little bit more consistent spot right now,” he said. “Giving myself a chance to hit multiple pitches in the zone, and I feel like I’m not chasing and just kind of commanding the zone for the most part. For me, that’s the difference in good hitters and bad hitters. If you can stay in the zone and make them throw you pitches, you’ll be able to drive the ball a little bit better.”
Turner was again racing around the bases in the top of the seventh after he ripped a ball down the third base line. He coasted into second with a double, and now the Cycle Watch was legitimately on.
“What I was thinking is that ... yesterday we hit the four home runs in a row,” Martinez said. “Today we have a grand slam. And when he came up again, I said, ‘Wouldn’t that be something? A cycle, grand slam, four home runs ... it’s a heck of a two days right there.”
Turner, of course, had already done it once before, on April 25, 2017 at Coors Field. He followed in the illustrious footsteps of Brad Wilkerson (April 6, 2005) and Cristian Guzmán (Aug. 28, 2008) as the only players in Nationals club history to hit for the cycle. And he was seeking to become only the 26th player in MLB history to do it twice.
Alas, it didn’t happen. Turner came up to bat with two out in the top of the eighth seeking the single, but he struck out looking at a 1-2 pitch on the outside corner from reliever Thyago Vieira.
The ninth-inning rally actually gave him another chance to get the job done, but he popped out on the first pitch he saw from Juan Minaya to dash that last hope for history.
“I don’t really care, to be honest, as long as we’re winning,” Turner said. “For me, if we’re winning, then it is what it is. I think it’s one of those things where the more you try, the less likely it’s going to happen. So for me, just get a pitch in the zone, take a good swing and see what happens.”