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

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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.

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Don't worry Nationals fans, Anthony Rendon was never going to be a Dodger

Don't worry Nationals fans, Anthony Rendon was never going to be a Dodger

While Nationals fans are understandably disappointed Anthony Rendon is no longer a member of the Nationals, they can rest easy knowing he didn't see himself signing the the NL rival Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers never made an offer to Rendon, per The Athletic, after "sensing that he didn’t want to play in Los Angeles." He instead signed with the Los Angeles Angels, inking a seven-year, $245 million deal to play for the California team that receives considerably less media attention than its in-state rival.

Now entrenched in the AL on the other side of the country, Rendon won't face the Nationals very often nor will his team's play have any effect on Washington's playoff chances from year to year. It was a best-case scenario for fans after it became likely he wouldn't be returning to Washington.

After being spurned by Rendon and losing out on top free-agent pitchers Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, the Dodgers are still looking to make their first big move of the offseason.

There's still plenty of time for them to make a move, but Los Angeles can expect little sympathy from Nationals fans that Rendon won't be suiting up in Dodger blue for the next seven years.

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Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Here’s the list of players on the Nationals’ active roster who could play third base: Wilmer Difo, Jake Noll, Adrián Sánchez, Howie Kendrick, Carter Kieboom. Career major-league starts at the position: Difo, 29; Noll, one; Sánchez, nine; Kendrick, 25; Kieboom, zero. 

Such is the state of third base for the defending World Series champions. Not good. 

Which makes Josh Donaldson’s agent smile and any semi-skilled third baseman with a pulse a possible target. Possible trades? Count the Nationals in. On most. Not on Nolan Arenado. That’s a non-starter because Washington is not going to send assets (prospects) for a contract it was unwilling to give Anthony Rendon in the first place. Zero chance. Zilch.

However, Kris Bryant is more intriguing depending on the years and ask -- as always with trades. Beyond him and Kyle Seager, is there another third baseman the Nationals could pursue in a trade? The question takes on weight because of the aforementioned toothless list of in-house candidates and shallow free-agent talent pool beyond Donaldson.

Any trade consideration needs to begin with an understanding of the parameters Washington is working from. Last season, Rendon’s one-year deal to avoid arbitration earned him $18.8 million. When Washington looks at the cost for its next third baseman, the number will be similar to last season’s cost for Rendon. A bump in the competitive balance tax threshold, plus savings at first base and catcher, provide the Nationals wiggle room for increases in spots. So, $18-25 million annually for a third baseman is in play.

Second, the Nationals’ farm system needs to be taken into account. Their 2018 first-round pick, Mason Denaburg, had shoulder problems last year. Mike Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings that Denaburg is healthy and progressing. But, the early shoulder irritation for a high school pitcher who also had problems his senior year with biceps tendinitis provides his stock pause. He’s a would-be trade chip. So is Kieboom.

But, what is Kieboom’s value? What damage did it receive during his rocky, and brief, appearance in the majors last season? Did his potent hitting in the Pacific Coast League after being sent back mitigate his big-league struggles? 

Beyond Kieboom, the farm system’s next tier is manned by Luis Garcia, 2019 first-round pick Jackson Rutledge, Wil Crowe and Tim Cate, among others. Only Garcia is part of MLB.com’s top-100 prospects list (which is more of a guide than an industry standard).

So, when Bryant or Seager -- or anyone not named Arenado -- are mentioned, know where the Nationals are coming from. If they are positioned to take on money, they don’t want to use assets to do it (this is the Donaldson Scenario). If they can save money, find a solid player and retain the few high-end assets, then a trade could be in play (this would be the Seager Scenario, if Seattle pays some of the contract). 

The Bryant Scenario is the most appealing and challenging. He’s the best player of the group. However, acquiring him would be high-cost and short-term. Bryant has two years remaining before he can become a free agent -- with an outside shot at becoming a free agent after next season because of a grievance he filed against the Cubs for service-time manipulation. Obtaining him would likely focus on multiple pitching prospects.

There is no Arenado Scenario. Just a reminder.

Piled together, Washington is in a tough spot. What it has is not enough. What it needs will be costly.

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