CHICAGO - They played (in the rain) in Pittsburgh last night, then flew to Chicago and put their heads on their hotel pillows around 3 a.m. Eastern time. Seven hours later, they began filing into Wrigley Field for the opener of a weekend series against one of the best home teams in the majors.
The Nationals had every right to complain about the disadvantageous scheduling. Their veterans had every right to sit out this afternoon’s game. Nobody would have faulted them had they sleepwalked through this game and taken a loss to the Cubs.
Instead, they did exactly what they’ve been doing all summer long. No matter the result of the previous night’s game, no matter the matchup, no matter the built-in excuses readily available to them if they wanted, the Nationals went out and played very good baseball and emerged victorious.
“They never complained,” manager Davey Martinez said. “They got up today and they showed up to the ballpark like always. ... A little less energy this morning, but once they got closer to the game, they hit in the cage, they got ready to play, and you guys saw how they reacted to the day.”
Yes, everyone saw how they reacted. All things considered, this 9-3 win might be among the most impressive of the season. The sleep-deprived Nationals marched into Wrigley Field, pounced on Jon Lester early, executed fundamental ball several times and rode well-rested Aníbal Sánchez to earn their 10th win in 12 games.
There really wasn’t anything not to like about this performance, starting with the no-nonsense way the Nationals approached this game despite the circumstances. While club executives and traveling media members grumbled about the rare night game in one city followed by day in another city, the players took it all in stride.
Martinez gave veterans the option of sitting out today’s game, but all wanted to play, including Kurt Suzuki, the 35-year-old catcher who was behind the plate for Max Scherzer’s start last night and Sánchez’s start this afternoon.
“It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to suck it up,” Suzuki said. “It’s baseball. It’s part of the game. It’s part of being on a baseball team. You’ve got to go out there and when called on to do it, you’ve got to do it. That’s how I was always brought up: You play when they tell you to play.”
The entire lineup remained intact, as a matter of fact, except for the pitcher’s spot. Sánchez flew into Chicago on Thursday and was the only member of the club to get a full night’s rest. And the right-hander certainly looked refreshed when he took the mound.
Sánchez was brilliant from the get-go. He allowed only four Cubs to reach base; one of those (Anthony Rizzo) was immediately wiped out on a double play, while another came on a ninth-inning throwing error by Anthony Rendon. Only Nick Castellanos, who singled with one out in the fourth, recorded a clean hit off of the starter. And he never advanced past first base.
“Amazing,” Martinez said. “He picked us up. You know, we come in here after a late night last night and ‘Show and Go’ day today, and he went out there and just held them down to basically nothing. That was awesome.”
Sánchez was denied his first shutout win since 2015 when the Cubs scored all of their runs in the ninth, knocking him from the game after a season-high 112 pitches, but continued his remarkable turnaround from 0-6 with a 5.10 ERA in nine starts before going on the injured list with a hamstring strain. He’s now 8-0 with a 3.18 ERA in 15 starts since returning from the IL.
“Really good, really good,” left fielder Juan Soto said. “It’s like all his pitches, you never know what he’s gonna do. Is he gonna surprise you with a fastball? Is he going to throw the butterfly? It’s going to be tough. Every time he’s on the mound, I like it.”
And thus did he continue a dominant run by the Nationals rotation. Over the first five games of this road trip, Nats starters have allowed two runs and 15 hits in 30 2/3 innings.
Sánchez even contributed at the plate in multiple ways. A notoriously weak hitter, he got down a nice sacrifice bunt in the third inning. He put down a perfect safety squeeze with two outs - his own decision - and the bases loaded in the fourth, the ball trickling halfway down the third base line and just barely in fair territory for his first RBI since 2014. He even recorded a line drive single in the eighth, making this his first two-hit game since he was a rookie for the Florida Marlins in 2006.
“For me, it’s always a big thing to help the team with my bat,” he said. “I’m not a good hitter, but if I can do something for the team at home plate, it’s a good thing. It’s a bonus.”
Sánchez had plenty of support from his teammates on this day as well.
Adam Eaton ripped a solo homer to right off Lester in the top of the first, his fifth homer in nine games. Suzuki added an RBI single to left in the fourth to keep that rally going in advance of Sánchez’s squeeze bunt.
Then came the big hits that blew this game open. Victor Robles’ two-run double capped a three-run rally in the fifth that saw Lester knocked out after the Nationals went 9-for-19 against him.
And when Soto took reliever David Phelps deep to left-center for his 29th homer of the season, the Nationals held an 8-0 lead and were able to just sit back and enjoy Sánchez’s dominant pitching performance to cap off an afternoon that could not have gone any better for this team, sleep or no sleep.
“I was here early, and I know the night those guys had,” the starter said. “I showed up today and tried to (pitch) deeper in the game. I know the situation, and I’m trying to go as deep into the game as I can. Thank god that I got the opportunity to be into the ninth inning.”