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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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Gerardo Parra says playing baseball in Japan ‘feels weird’ without fans

Gerardo Parra says playing baseball in Japan ‘feels weird’ without fans

While baseball players in the U.S. have yet to receive any update on when the 2020 MLB season will begin, the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball league has twice tried to reschedule its season opener only to delay it as a result of the continued impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The NPB had hoped to begin its season April 24, more than a month after its originally scheduled start date of March 20. However, the league announced on Friday that “thing are getting worse now” after three of its players, including star pitcher Shintaro Fujinami, tested positive for COVID-19. As of Monday afternoon, there were 3,654 confirmed cases in Japan—up from just over 2,600 last Thursday (per Johns Hopkins).

Unlike the MLB, Japan’s NPB elected to continue playing out its preseason back in February despite the spread of the virus. The league announced Feb. 26 that its 72 remaining preseason games would be played without fans in attendance. It was something that former Nationals outfielder Gerardo Parra, now with the Yomiuri Giants, didn’t enjoy as much as the real thing

“It feels weird,” Parra said on a recorded FaceTime call with MASN’s Alex Chappell and Mark Zuckerman. “It feels weird because the motivation for us [as] players, we want to see a lot of fans. I want to see fans enjoy the [game], it brings me a lot of energy.”

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Parra joined the Nationals midway through the 2019 campaign and is widely credited with helping the clubhouse loosen up before turning around its season. After starting out 19-31, the Nationals rallied to secure a Wild Card bid before riding a postseason full of comebacks on their way to winning D.C.’s first World Series title since 1924.

If anyone can make the best out of a weird situation, it’s Parra. But as long as the coronavirus outbreak continues to restrict everyday life, there aren’t going to be many other options for playing baseball.

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Nationals closer Sean Doolittle calls wait for regular season a ‘crash course’ in being a relief pitcher

Nationals closer Sean Doolittle calls wait for regular season a ‘crash course’ in being a relief pitcher

With the start of the MLB season delayed indefinitely due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, baseball players are having to do whatever they can to stay in shape while stuck in their homes.

Not all are as lucky as Nationals starter Max Scherzer, who’s social distancing in his West Palm Beach home with Orioles catcher Bryan Holaday. Many players are training with household items, while others have been soliciting the help of their family members in lieu of a coaching staff.

It’s been a unique experience for players who entered the month of March thinking their offseason was about to end. Instead, they’re having to maintain a workout regimen that will have them ready for Opening Day—whenever that might be.

That feeling is a bit familiar for Nationals closer Sean Doolittle, who appeared on SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio channel Monday morning to talk about how he’s been holding up since the season was postponed back in early March.

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“Everybody’s kind of getting a crash course in what it’s like to be a relief pitcher right now,” Doolittle said. “Sometimes as a relief pitcher, you kind of have to get ready and steady ready even though you’re not exactly sure when you’re going to come into a game. It’s just kind of the nature of the job.

“The bullpen phone might ring and just say, ‘Hey, get ready’ and you say, ‘Well, who do they want me for? What spot am I going in?’ and the answer a lot of times is, ‘They didn’t say, just get ready and stay ready.’ So that’s kind of what a lot of guys are having to do right now.”

Of course, things are a bit easier for Doolittle as a closer. But even he sometimes goes into games early to get a few extra outs. Getting hot right before going into a game is a tricky science for a reliever, as the rest of the players on the field are finding out.

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