How Anibal Sanchez used his deep repertoire to puzzle the Cardinals and flirt with a no-hitter in NLCS Game 1
The 35-year-old righty almost threw the third no-hitter in postseason history
ST. LOUIS -- Nationals right-hander Anibal Sanchez in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cardinals took a no-hitter into the eighth inning. Sanchez, staked to a 2-0 lead that would hold up, finally allowed a hit with two outs in the eighth when pinch-hitter Jose Martinez's humpback liner landed in front of center fielder Michael A. Taylor.
Sanchez managed to make it through the heart of the St. Louis order in the seventh, and that test came after a long top of the inning, in which seven Nationals hitters came to the plate around a pair of mid-inning pitching changes by the Cardinals. Veteran first baseman Ryan Zimmerman extended Sanchez's bid with a diving snare of Tommy Edman's full-count liner to lead off the eighth. Two batters later, however, Martinez notched his single.
Had he completed his bid, Sanchez's would've been just the third no-hitter in postseason history, joining Roy Halladay's in the 2010 NLDS and Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. As things stand, Sanchez is just the sixth starting pitcher in postseason history to throw at least 7 2/3 no-hit innings.
Sanchez previously threw six hitless innings as a member of the Tigers in the 2013 ALCS. Friday night's effort makes him the first pitcher in postseason history to have multiple postseason no-hit bids of at least six innings. Sanchez threw a regular season no-hitter as a Marlins rookie in 2006.
Sanchez was at just 75 pitches after six innings and 89 after seven, so from a workload standpoint he likely would have been able to go the distance. As well, the already inconsistent Nationals bullpen was without its best reliever, as Daniel Hudson missed the game for the birth of his daughter. That might have made manager Davey Martinez more willing to get uncommon length out of Sanchez in Game 1.
Sanchez kept Cardinals hitters off-balance for most of the night by fully tapping into his deep repertoire. Per StatCast, Sanchez threw all six of his pitches, none of them more than 30 percent of the time and none of them topping 92.7 miles per hour. The Cardinals had only one well-struck ball prior to Edman's in the eighth, and that was Marcell Ozuna's drive to the warning track in the second. Sanchez didn't permit his first baserunner until Kolten Wong drew a walk with one out in the fourth. He didn't allow his second baserunner until he clipped pinch-hitter Randy Arozarena with an inside splitter with one out in the sixth.
After giving up the hit to Martinez on his 103rd pitch, Sanchez was lifted for reliever Sean Doolittle, who closed it out with a four-out save to put the Nats up 1-0 in the best-of-seven series. Here's Sanchez's final line for the night:
In his start against the Dodgers in Game 3 of the recently completed NLDS, Sanchez allowed only one run in five innings of work against the NL's best offense. Sanchez now boasts a 2.57 ERA in nine postseason starts and one relief appearance.
That we're to this point with Sanchez is something to appreciate. Following the 2017 season, Sanchez was 33, had been steadily losing fastball velocity for half a decade or so, and had just concluded a three-season run for the Tigers in which he pitched to 5.67 ERA over his last 68 starts and 20 relief appearances. That's a guy who's drummed out of the league, not one who two years later comes close to twirling an LCS no-hitter.
Sanchez caught on with the Braves for the bulk of the 2018 season but only after being cut loose by the Twins during spring training. With Atlanta, however, Sanchez remade himself largely by throwing his cutter much more often and also flashing his splitter more than he did in prior seasons. There was also the "butterfly" pitch he cultivated late in the 2017 season that comes in like some kind of slow curve with some cutter action (it's the pitch with which he accidentally plunked Yadier Molina in the seventh). All of that worked.
In that 2018 season, Sanchez put up a 2.83 ERA in 24 starts and one relief appearance for the Braves. That was enough to earn him a multiyear contract with the Nationals, a team bent on contention. During the regular season, Sanchez stabilized the back end behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin with 166 innings and anof 119. As fourth starters go, those are outstanding numbers. Of course, in Game 1 Sanchez was no "mere" fourth starter. He was every bit the peer of the "Big Three."
"I've said it all year," the manager Martinez said after Game 1. "When he came back off the IL, everybody talks about Stras, Scherzer, Corbin, I mean Anibal's been, he's a big part of why we are here, too. He's pitched unbelievable since coming off the IL, 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."
When you throw a sackful of pitches like Sanchez does, lean on the cutter, and change speeds so drastically, you tend to smother contact off the bat. That describes Sanchez on Friday. One of his sinkers in Game 1 left the bat at 41.6 mph, which is the kind of exit velocity you might see out of a nine-year-old. Cardinals manager Mike Shildt after Game 1 talked about how Sanchez "didn't give us a lot we could put good swings on," and that's the key when you're not often cracking 90 mph on the gun.
Also impressive is that Sanchez, with all those pitches to choose from, wasn't working with his usual catcher on Friday. Kurt Suzuki, who's on the roster after fouling a pitch off his face in NLDS Game 5 but wasn't in the Game 1 lineup, caught 26 of Sanchez's 30 starts in the regular season. That left just four regular season starts for Yan Gomes, who caught Sanchez on Friday. As well, Suzuki was also with Sanchez last season, and he's caught more than 75 percent of his innings since that Atlanta renaissance. Credit to Gomes for his excellent game-calling, and credit to Sanchez for executing under pressure and without his usual battery mate. "It's good when I got that kind of command," Sanchez said afterward, "because it's easier for the catcher to call the game."
"Anibal and I had a great game plan going into it," Gomes said. "We were sticking to it, and were communicating really well between innings."
Part of that game plan seemed to showing the Cardinals more two-seamers than Sanchez, post-Atlanta, typically does. "Yeah, for me, I just wanted to be out of the power zone of those guys," Sanchez said. "Every mistake -- if you make mistake against those guys, they're pretty strong. They can change the score in one swing. I just tried to keep the ball on the corners. My two-seamer was working really good today, and we used it a lot."
When you throw that many pitches, you can tailor the approach to the opponent more readily, and that's what Sanchez and Gomes did. As a result, the Nationals have a lead in the NLCS, and none of the Big Three have even taken the mound yet. That's thanks mostly to Anibal Sanchez, current favorite for NLCS MVP honors.
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