ST. LOUIS - Aníbal Sánchez is not Max Scherzer. He’s not Stephen Strasburg. And he’s not Patrick Corbin. The rest of baseball may overlook him because of that, but the Nationals most definitely do not.
Who cares if Sánchez doesn’t have Strasburg’s dominant stuff or Scherzer’s adrenaline or Corbin’s wipeout slider? He’s got 14 years of big league experience, a vast repertoire of pitches few else in this sport can match, and the smarts and guts to use every one of them in any situation to get even the toughest opposing hitters out.
Davey Martinez has repeatedly reminded reporters all summer and fall that his rotation doesn’t include a “big three.” It’s actually a “big four,” with Sánchez deserving of a spot right alongside Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin.
And tonight, the wily, old veteran proved it once and for all with an October performance for the ages.
With his wide-ranging assortment of pitches in peak form, Sánchez baffled the Cardinals for 7 2/3 innings, finally surrendering his first hit to the final batter he faced in the bottom of the eighth. Sean Doolittle then finished it off for his teammate, lifting the Nationals to a 2-0 victory in their National League Championship Series debut before a stunned crowd of 45,075 at Busch Stadium.
“I mean, he was tremendous tonight,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “Hitting every quadrant any time we needed to hit a spot or something. Every pitch meant something.”
Sánchez, who got the Game 1 assignment after Martinez had to use up Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin to get through a grueling NL Division Series victory over the Dodgers, more than proved himself worthy of the assignment. He allowed only four batters to reach base, none via hit until José Martínez lined a 3-2 pitch into shallow center field with two outs in the eighth.
His starter’s pitch count at 103 and his command beginning to waver a bit, Davey Martinez made the move to Doolittle right then, giving Sánchez a big pat on the back as he handed over the ball.
“Everybody talks about Stras, Scherzer, Corbin,” the manager said. “I mean, Aníbal’s been a big part of why we are here, too. He’s pitched unbelievable since coming off the IL (in late-May), so he’s a big part of our success. And, man, he goes out there and he gives us a chance to win every time he’s out there.”
Doolittle, the only truly reliable reliever available to the Nationals tonight with Daniel Hudson at home in Phoenix with his wife and just-born daughter, got Dexter Fowler to ground out to end the eighth. He then closed it out with a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth for a four-out save to give his team a 1-0 lead in its first NLCS appearance.
“Aníbal comes out attacking their hitters, working quick and having quick innings,” Doolittle said. “And I can’t speak for the effect that it had on the dugout. But at least in the bullpen, that was a very calming thing. It gave us a lot of confidence. Here we have one of our starters, one of our leaders of this team, that’s going out and he’s setting the tone for the game by attacking their guys and working quick. And I think it just put everybody at ease.”
Not that this game was in the bag at any point. The Nationals scratched out a couple of runs while squandering several opportunities for more, giving Sánchez little room for error. The Cardinals, though, hit only a handful of balls hard, and the only close call prior to Martinez’s single was snuffed out by Ryan Zimmerman, who made a full-extension diving catch of Tommy Edman’s line drive to first to lead off the eighth.
“You kind of see it in the air and go for it,” the 35-year-old first baseman said. “It’s either me or nobody.”
Sánchez, who had thrown a no-hitter as a Marlins rookie way back in 2006, remembered how important a diving catch in left field by Josh Willingham was that night. He had a similar vibe when he saw Zimmerman make his diving stab tonight.
“He caught that ball, and I said: ‘OK, always behind a no-hitter, a good play has to happen,’” the right-hander recalled. “And I said: ‘OK, I had it.’ ”
Not that this was new territory for Sánchez. He did, after all, toss six no-hit innings for the Tigers in Game 1 of the 2013 American League Championship Series against the Red Sox. And only five days ago, he held the Dodgers to one run over five standout innings, which combined with tonight’s effort gives him 12 2/3 innings of one-run, five-hit ball so far in this postseason.
The Nationals couldn’t have asked for any more out of the 35-year-old, who now has given his team a series lead before it sends Scherzer to the mound for Game 2 on Saturday and (probably) Strasburg to the mound for Game 3 on Monday in Washington.
“Before the game when we had our little gathering here, people were talking about the big three,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “And I said: ‘Hey, we’re going to respect them. We’re familiar with them. But we got a guy tonight that we got to contend with, and not overlook him.’ And we didn’t. He was just really good, made a lot of quality pitches and didn’t give us a lot we could put good swings on.”
On a blustery, 45-degree night that served as a reminder we’re now experiencing real October baseball, quality at-bats were at a premium early on for both teams. The Nationals, though, managed to drive two balls to the gaps in the top of the second, and that was enough to give them the first run of the series.
Howie Kendrick, last seen launching the biggest grand slam in team history, led off the inning with a double to right-center. Zimmerman and Michael A. Taylor couldn’t advance him, but no worries because the suddenly red-hot Gomes could.
Gomes, subbing for Kurt Suzuki while the latter continues to recover from the pitch that struck him in the wrist and face Wednesday night in Los Angeles, drilled a two-out double to left-center. Kendrick scored, the Nationals led 1-0, and Gomes had himself his second straight hit after he and Suzuki had combined to go 0-for-17 to open the postseason. (Gomes would add a single his next time up, as well.)
“Early on in the game, if an opportunity comes, you got a guy on second, you got a chance to drive in a run, you try to capitalize on it,” the catcher said. “You try to focus on not doing too much with it, get a good pitch to hit. And that ended up happening, and I put a good swing on it.”
Despite opportunities to inflict more damage on Miles Mikolas, the Nationals could not push across another run against the St. Louis starter. They loaded the bases in the fifth but watched as Juan Soto grounded out to second, prompting Mikolas to gesture at the 20-year-old in response to Soto’s batter’s box routine. They stranded two more in the sixth, a rally that fizzled in part due to Taylor’s strikeout.
Finally in the seventh, they squeezed one more run across. Adam Eaton’s one-out triple got things going. Lefty extraordinaire Andrew Miller struck out Soto on the last of his seven consecutive sliders. But Kendrick responded with a line drive single to center off John Brebbia, extending the lead to 2-0.
That’s as far as the Nationals wound extend it, though, again stranding the bases loaded. By night’s end, they would strand 13 total runners on base.
So the pressure remained on Sánchez to be perfect. Or awfully close to it, which he was. The wily veteran cruised from the get-go, retiring the first 10 batters he faced with ease before Kolten Wong drew a one-out walk in the fourth.
Pinch-hitter Randy Arozarena managed to get hit on the elbow in the sixth. Sánchez managed to strand him on third.
Yadier Molina also was hit by a pitch in the seventh, this time on a 66 mph butterfly changeup that still left the crowd booing. Again, no worries. Sánchez got Matt Carpenter to ground out and waltzed off the mound, his unlikely run at history intact on a night when his teammates were finding out what it’s like to play this late in October for the first time.
“Every opportunity is special,” Sánchez said. “To be able to (provide) a strong outing for a team, it’s always just special. I feel blessed all the time, because for my whole career - like since I went to Detroit - I had the opportunity to be in that position several times. And at the end, to get the win for the team, for me it’s more important.”