Aníbal Sánchez’s near no-hitter leads Nationals to 1-0 lead in NLCS


Aníbal Sánchez chased history with his usual blend of pitches.

Soft away, a fastball which looked a little snappier because so many other slow pitches worked before and after it.

Pitches down, pitches up, pitches in and pitches out; an edge painter who had all his strokes working masterfully on a frigid October night in Missouri.

The Cardinals could not hit tame them for a hit until two outs in the eighth inning. Sánchez left the mound then with a 2-0 lead. Sean Doolittle made it hold. The Nationals took a 1-0 lead in the organization’s first best-of-seven National League Championship Series because of a combined one-hit shutout.

Game 2 is Saturday afternoon. Washington sends Max Scherzer to the mound in his native state to pursue a rare 2-0 lead after opening on the road. 

In a blink, Sánchez finished four innings. He allowed just a walk, threw 45 pitches -- 29 for strikes -- and clicked along with a 1-0 lead. Yan Gomes provided it with a second-inning double.

He zipped through the fifth inning on just 11 pitches. Still no hits. And, a perfect alignment for the situation Washington started the game in.

Sánchez’s efficiency came on a night when Daniel Hudson was not in the bullpen. The Friday birth of Hudson’s daughter put him on the paternity list. It also extracted one of the two reliable relievers who exist in the Nationals’ bullpen. Davey Martinez used a lot of “we’ll see” when discussing how the back of the game would work Friday night without Hudson. Sánchez considerably cut into those issues through the first five innings.

Yet, the bullpen and a tenuous lead loomed. Washington’s seven hits in six innings against St. Louis starter Miles Mikolas led to just a run when Gomes drove in Howie Kendrick. They struck out seven times. Juan Soto rolled over a Mikolas curveball with the bases loaded and received some chirping from him and the St. Louis crowd, which booed him earlier in the game. Soto’s movement in the batter’s box -- better known as the “Soto Shuffle” -- continues to draw eyeballs and a touch of ire as his exposure broadens during the postseason.

Sánchez continued to make the shallow lead hold in the sixth. A strikeout preceded Randy Arozarena being hit by a pitch, leading to just the second Cardinals runner of the evening. Arozarena stole second without a throw. He ended up on third base after a ground out to the right side. No matter. Sánchez closed the inning via a fly ball to center field. He calmly walked off the mound needing only 75 pitches to hold St. Louis hitless through six innings. 

Adam Eaton tripled one out into the seventh. Anthony Rendon was intentionally walked. Soto came up, lanky left-hander Andrew Miller came in to tussle with him. A seven-pitch at-bat ended with Soto swinging through a middle-of-the-zone slider. St. Louis manager Mike Shildt returned to the mound. Kendrick was next. 

John Brebbia’s second pitch to Kendrick ended up in center field. Eaton scored. The Nationals doubled their meager lead to 2-0 because the 35-year-old once again came through. Meanwhile, Sánchez waited in the dugout while the top of the seventh dragged for half an hour.

The extended break had no effect on him. He marched through the seventh without allowing a hit, though he did plunk another batter. Sánchez was due up second in the top of the eighth. Martinez decided to let him hit for himself in what became a 1-2-3 inning. He returned to the mound 89 pitches into his outing, having allowed just one hard-hit ball, and on a path to possible the only other two men -- Don Larsen and Roy Halladay -- to throw postseason no-hitters. He was already tied for the fourth-longest no-hit outing in National League postseason history. Tanner Rainey and Sean Doolittle warmed while Sánchez chased history.

Tommy Edman drove Sánchez to a full count before hitting a line drive to the right of Ryan Zimmerman, who crossed over, dove and snared what would have spoiled the evening’s pursuit. Sánchez pumped his fist. Bench coach Chip Hale screamed in the chilly dugout. Zimmerman popped to his knees, dusted himself off and tossed the ball to Howie Kendrick. Paul Dejong flew out a pitch later. Free-swinging Jose Martinez was next. He drove the count full to 3-2 as Sánchez cracked 100 pitches for the night. Pitch 103 dropped gently into shallow center field.

Sánchez tipped his cap to Jose Martinez. Dave Martinez came out of the dugout, part relieved, part disappointed, part worried about what was next. He took the ball from Sánchez and summoned Doolittle for a four-out save. A Dexter Fowler groundout provided the first one. On to the ninth.

Doolittle handled Kolten Wong’s bunt to open the bottom part of the final inning. Paul Goldschmidt grounded out. 

Washington survived on the wiles of Sánchez and shutdown work of Doolittle. Two runs were enough. Scherzer is next. Add another bubbly chapter to this postseason script.