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Add Anibal Sánchez's NLCS Game 1 start to best performances in Nats playoff history

Add Anibal Sánchez's NLCS Game 1 start to best performances in Nats playoff history

Anibal Sánchez's name can officially be added to the still short, but growing list of Nationals postseason heroes. 

Put him up there with Juan Soto, who had the go-ahead RBI against the Brewers in the NL Wild Card game, and Howie Kendrick, who hit a grand slam in the 10th inning of Game 5 against the Dodgers on Wednesday to push the Nats to their first NL Championship Series. 

Jayson Werth is certainly on there thanks to his walk-off homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS. And Stephen Strasburg has already had a few memorable moments, including his Game 4 start against the Cubs in 2017 and his Game 2 start vs. the Dodgers on Oct. 4.

But Sánchez now owns claim to something that cannot be disputed. He has thrown the best start in Nationals playoff history. 

He was surgical on Friday night against a St. Louis Cardinals team that in their previous game put up 10 runs in the first inning alone. He went 7 2/3 shutout innings with only one hit and one walk allowed and two hit batters.

Sanchez didn't allow a single baserunner until the fourth inning and his lone hit was to the very last batter he faced. He was four outs away from just the third no-hitter in MLB postseason history. 

Though he fell short of that distinction, he already distinguished himself in D.C. baseball lore. It was the longest start without allowing a run for a Washington pitcher since Earl Whitehill pitched a shutout in the 1933 World Series against the New York Giants. Walter Johnson also went a full nine without giving up a run in the 1924 World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But that's it, those are the only two pitchers ever to go further in a Washington jersey without giving up a run. Only one other pitcher in franchise history, Ray Burris of the Montreal Expos, threw more shutout innings in a postseason start. He also threw a shutout back in the 1981 NLCS against the Dodgers.

There have been other strong pitching performances by Nats pitchers in October, but nothing qutie like what Sanchez pulled off on Friday night. The candidates for second-best playoff start by a Nats pitcher would be Max Scherzer in Game 4 of this year's NLDS (7 IP, ER), Strasburg in that Game 4 against the Cubs in 2017 (7 IP, 0 ER, 12 SO), Strasburg in Game 1 of that series (7 IP, 2 R, 0 ER, 10 SO) and Doug Fister in Game 3 of the 2014 NLDS against the Giants (7 IP, 0 ER).

But Sánchez clearly has them beat both given the numbers he produced and the fact it was in a deeper round of the playoffs. It also, of course, went way beyond the stats.

The Nationals were desperate to have Sanchez go deep in this game because of the state of their bullpen, which was already a concern before closer Daniel Hudson left the team on the paternity list. With him unavailable, Sánchez's ideal start would include going at least 7 2/3 innings to create a bridge to Sean Doolittle, and that is exactly what he did. The Nats used only two pitchers to escape with a 2-0 victory and only 10 total players because there were no pinch-hitters.

Sánchez stepped up and delivered a gem in the biggest game in Nats history so far. It was the best outing of Sanchez' postseason career, though not by much. He's made a habit of doing this on baseball's biggest stage.

Sánchez also threw seven scoreless frames in Game 2 of the 2012 ALCS when he was with the Tigers. And he took a no-hitter through six innings in Game 1 of the ALCS back in 2013. Scherzer actually started Game 2 of that series and will do the same for the Nats on Saturday.

Sánchez has put together quite the postseason career to this point. While his regular season career ERA sits at a modest 3.98, it plummets to 2.57 in the playoffs. The sample size isn't all that small either, now at 56 innings spanning five different postseasons.

Considering that, one could make the argument the Nats have a Big Four and not just a Big Three when it comes to the playoffs. Sanchez is often overshadowed by Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, but his October results speak for themselves.

Sánchez is now through 12.2 innings this postseason with the Nats having only allowed one run. That should make them feel very good about having him pitch again in this series, which has him lined up to throw Game 5.

The Nats are now up 1-0 on the Cardinals, three wins away from a World Series berth. And they have their rotation lined up to be Scherzer in Game 2, Strasburg in Game 3 and Corbin in Game 4. If necessary, Sánchez would throw Game 5, Scherzer would take Game 6 and Strasburg would be ready for a Game 7.

That doesn't sound good for St. Louis.

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Nationals owner Mark Lerner says team can’t afford Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon

Nationals owner Mark Lerner says team can’t afford Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon

The prime question as soon as Stephen Strasburg opted out of his contract was this: Could the Nationals afford to bring back Strasburg and Anthony Rendon? According to managing principal owner Mark Lerner, the answer is no. 

“We really can only afford to have one of those two guys,” Lerner told Donald Dell in an exclusive interview. “They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with.”

Lerner’s public stance suggesting Strasburg and Rendon is an either-or proposition for the defending World Series champions is new. Is it surprising? Not necessarily. Lerner could flatly state the organization is going to find a way to pay both. However, that’s poor negotiating. Being in between serves multiple needs: It keeps the door open on each player; it stirs the market without roiling it; it prepares fans for an outcome they don’t prefer.

Lerner has not hesitated to comment on pending and enormous free agent situations since becoming the more outward face of the team’s ownership group. His father, founding principal owner Ted Lerner, has stepped back, though remains the patriarchal voice on large expenditures. Here, like last year, Mark Lerner has answered early December questions about free agency with eyebrow-raising candor. His declaration about Strasburg and Rendon comes almost a year-to-the-day after he said about Bryce Harper, “I don’t really expect him to come back at this point. I think they’ve decided to move on.”

An owner talking with a blend of tactfulness and openness -- when asked a direct question by an interviewer -- drew irritation from Harper’s agent, Scott Boras. Boras also represents Rendon and Strasburg. Hearing an owner speak in a way which counters possible price increases by reducing prospective market competition won’t make any agent happy. It happened here.

So, is there a path for the Nationals to pay both players? Of course. But, it’s a matter of how. In Lerner’s view, whether both players return is up to them, not the organization.

“We’re pursuing them, we’re pursuing other free agents in case they decided to go elsewhere,” Lerner said in the interview with Dell. “Again, it’s not up to us. We can give them a great offer -- which we’ve done to both of those players. They’re great people. We’d be delighted if they stay. But it’s not up to us, it’s up to them. That’s why they call it free agency.”

Important to note: Lerner said the organization cannot afford both, then said it’s up to the players -- not ownership -- whether the players return. The suggestion is if they take lower deals, which both sides know they won’t, they could come back, which in fact would make the players solely responsible for deciding the process. That’s now how free agency works, which everyone involved here understands. 

Lerner could process the offseason in Steinbrennerian fashion. Pay, pay, pay. He won’t. It’s not how the family runs the team. They operate more as well-heeled pragmatists. 

Payroll is consistently high. Washington has been in the top seven four of the last five seasons. Twice, it has reached the No. 5 spot in team payroll. The Nationals gave Max Scherzer the years and total other teams would not. The same happened for Patrick Corbin last offseason.

However, the team also took extensive measures to dip back under the competitive balance tax threshold in 2019 in order to avoid financial and draft pick penalties. It is also already driving down next season’s payroll by renegotiating with Yan Gomes (declined $9 million option; re-signed for two years and $10 million) and reworking Ryan Zimmerman’s contract (declined $18 million option; likely re-signing for around a third of that).

Costs outside of the two big-ticket items of third base and an upper-tier starter should be moderate. The bullpen needs help. Relievers are not bank-breakers. Second base could well consist of a veteran and rookie Carter Kieboom. Those spots influence the immediate math and save money.

Looming are the contracts of Trea Turner (free agent in 2023; also receiving a raise this season), Juan Soto and Victor Robles (free agents in 2025). Though that trio is egregiously outperforming their contracts while wading through MLB’s oppressive early career salary scale, which means opportunity exists now to spend because of emphatic savings via those three players.

Lerner also suggested the free agency process is generally misunderstood outside of baseball circles.

“They think you’re really back there printing money and it’s whoever goes to the highest bidder,” Lerner said. “It’s not that way at all. You give these fellas -- there’s a negotiation that goes on, but...We’ve been pretty successful in free agency over time. You’re not going to get everybody. Certain players may want to go home, closer to where their home is. You never know the reason why people move on. But, we’ve been very successful. Probably one of the most successful teams in free agency the last 10 years. We’re very proud of our record. But, again, I think people have to realize, it’s not all up to us.” 

It nearly can be. The money can be level or more. A public emphasis could be put on the organization’s desperation to bring back two homegrown, upper-tier players at distinct positions of need. No, teams can’t control everything with just cash (as Zack Wheeler recently demonstrated by taking less money to sign with Philadelphia). However, if the organization contends it owns the environmental tiebreakers -- which is a stance the Nationals hold with both players -- then it does become a matter of money and whether it’s found. In this case, the owner says it won’t be. 

See more of the interview on the next episode of The Donald Dell Interview, which debuts December 17 at 7 PM on NBC Sports Washington.
 

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Anthony Rendon's best options and the chances he returns to the Nationals

Anthony Rendon's best options and the chances he returns to the Nationals

Discussions and speculation surrounding how the Nationals will look on Opening Day of their first World Series title defense begin and end with free agents Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon. 

Considered two of the top three players available along with Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole, Rendon and Strasburg will both command massive paydays wherever they decide to sign. 

To this point, reports have suggested a marriage between Strasburg and the Nationals could happen as soon as the start of the winter meetings. 

But what about Rendon? Jesse Daugherty of the Washington Post and Jamal Collier of MLB.com joined Todd Dybas on the Nationals Talk Podcast to break down his best options and the level of interest he could have in returning to DC. 

"I think the one most intriguing option for me that seems to make sense is that Justin Turner has said he'll move off third [base] for LA [Dodgers] and the Dodgers are known to offer low-year, high AAV deals which is something that probably seems attractive to Rendon, who has told us many a time he'd like to retire by 35," Daugherty said. 

If we can take Rendon's word on retiring at 35, this contract may be his last. One major hurdle for him could be the depth at third base across the league, especially on contending teams. 

"Most teams don't need [a third baseman]," Daugherty said. "The Phillies need one, the Braves need one, I guess the Dodgers need one if Turner's willing to move, but [the third base market] really is hard for me to gauge."

Meanwhile, Collier speculates that a natural fit for Rendon would be his home-town team. 

"A team that potentially could be a player for Rendon and one that makes a lot of sense is Texas [Rangers]," Collier said. "Obviously the home state, coming into a new ballpark, they should have money to spend, and I think it's a place that he would want to play at."

Every player wants to get paid, but there are often intangible factors that convince them to take a discount. Whether it's comfortability, saving your owner money to keep a contender together or playing close to home, not every player is won over by a huge contract offer. 

While that may be the case with Strasburg, it doesn't appear Rendon puts as much stock in those things. 

"All those things we said about Strasburg in the comfort and the idea that he likes it [in Washington], I think those things are also true for Rendon," Collier said. "I think if all things were equal, I think the Nats would hold some sort of tiebreaker over most teams. The comfort of DC is probably in his factors but probably won't weigh as heavily as it will with Strasburg. 

"The money has to be equal if the Nats are going to be there," Collier said. 

So no matter how much the Nationals may want to bring both Rendon and Strasburg back for a team-friendly price, they'll have to play by the same rules as everyone else. 

If they don't want to pay up for Rendon, their options to replace him are notably slim. 

"Someone is going to throw a lot of money to Rendon," Collier said. "He’s been a 5, 6 win player per season and probably will be for the next few years. One of the best players in baseball is going to get some play, but not sure where."

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