Aníbal Sánchez will forever be linked with the Nationals’ 2019 title, not simply for his pitching performance but for the role he played in bringing the joy out of his teammates during a championship season that was as much a product of clubhouse chemistry as it was pure talent.
Given the unprecedented circumstances of the 2020 season, it was tough for Sánchez and Co. to have the kind of fun they did a year ago. And as he and his team struggled through the first large chunk of the 60-game schedule, there was little joy to experience, as much as they tried to generate it on their own.
As he walked off the mound tonight, having done his part in an eventual 5-3 victory for the Nationals over the Mets to complete a doubleheader sweep on the penultimate day of the season, Sánchez couldn’t smile. A trying year for the 36-year-old ended on a positive note, but there was no standing ovation to greet him as he departed for the dugout, only the polite applause of teammates and coaches.
“A lot of thoughts on my mind,” he said during a Zoom session with reporters after the game. “Thinking this could be my last outing with this team, or if I’ve got another year with this team. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that. But I feel right now really grateful for the team and the organization. It’s a team that I want to continue with.”
Sánchez did what he could tonight, holding New York to three runs over 5 1/3 innings, his lone hiccup a first-pitch fastball to Pete Alonso that wound up in the visitors’ bullpen for a two-run homer. Otherwise, the veteran right-hander was in control in a manner reminiscent of his first season in D.C. and not as much his second.
The question now: Will Sánchez return for a third?
The Nationals hold a $12 million option on him for 2021, with a $2 million buyout if they elect not to bring him back. No matter what, they owe him a $4 million payment in January, money that was deferred from his 2019-20 salaries.
Given Sánchez’s struggles this season and advanced age, it would not be surprising if the Nats decide it’s time to move on and find a younger, more consistent No. 4 starter to supplement their star-studded trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. At this point, all Sánchez can do is head home to his family in Miami, wait to learn his fate and still bask in the glory of the 2019 season.
“You saw how he pitched the last couple outings,” manager Davey Martinez said of the veteran, who won his final two starts and lowered his ERA from 7.38 to 6.62. “I think he still has stuff left in the tank. Today, he was throwing 92 (mph). He had a great outing. And that’s awesome to see him go out there in his last start and do what he did today. Who knows what’s going to happen in the future. I love him to death. What he’s done for us, not only pitching-wise but (in) the clubhouse, phenomenal. He kept that whole clubhouse together.”
Everyone has only one more day together in the clubhouse before returning home, one more game to play with little on the line.
With their 4-3 victory in the first half of the 14-inning doubleheader, the Nationals eliminated the Mets from the playoff race. So for the first time this season, there was nothing officially at stake when they took the field for the nightcap. (Aside from the battle to see if the Nats can catch the Mets and finish tied for fourth place in the National League East.)
So perhaps everyone played more relaxed tonight, with not a care in the world, willing to try things they don’t normally try. (Example: Kurt Suzuki stole a base. For the first time since 2013. Turns out Martinez noticed he had 19 for his career and told him to try for No. 20 tonight.)
As we learned last year, a relaxed Nationals ballclub is a good Nationals ballclub. And they looked like it tonight, especially during a five-run bottom of the third against Rick Porcello, who had cruised in his first two starts against these guys last month but labored in this outing.
Trea Turner ignited the rally with a homer to right-center, his 11th of the season and further evidence of his growth into a complete hitter this season as he has begun to drive the ball to the opposite field with more regularity.
An RBI double by Yadiel Hernández, looking more comfortable at the plate with each passing day, made it 2-0. Suzuki’s RBI single made it 3-0 and set up his aforementioned surprise stolen base.
By the time Michael A. Taylor beat out an infield single with two on and two out, the Nats had five runs on the board, making life easy on Sánchez.
Things did get a little hairy in the top of the sixth, forcing Martinez to pull his starter and entrust Wander Suero to get out of the jam. Suero allowed one inherited runner to score, but limited the damage to that.
And when Daniel Hudson put the finishing touches on this victory in the top of the seventh, the Nationals walked away at the end of a long day. They played six doubleheaders this bizarre season, sweeping two and splitting four. There is one more game to play in 2020, one more chance to find some joy on the ballfield before a winter of big decisions begins.
“I don’t feel like I’m tired of this game,” Sánchez said. “I think every year I feel more love for this game, for what I’ve been doing for many years. And I think I’m still able to compete at this level.”