Aníbal Sánchez’s start to the 2020 season has looked a lot like his start to the 2019 campaign.
Following the Nationals’ 5-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox on Saturday, Sánchez has a 1-4 record on the year with a 6.90 ERA over six starts. In 2019, he was 0-4 with a 5.91 ERA after his first six appearances but made a trip to the injured list two weeks later and came back a different pitcher.
This year, Sánchez doesn’t have that kind of time. Washington has reached the official halfway point of its 2020 season and fallen behind the rest of the NL. The Nationals will enter play Sunday at 12-18 and last place in the NL East. If the season were finished, they would hold the seventh overall pick in next year’s MLB draft.
However, a muddled NL playoff picture also has the Nationals just three games out of a playoff spot thanks to this year’s expanded format.
General Manager Mike Rizzo said last weekend that Washington is “here to win the World Series this year, and that never changes in my mind or in [manager Dave Martinez’s] mind or the owner’s mind.” But with half a schedule left and Monday’s trade deadline approaching, the Nationals need their key contributors to play up to expectations if they’re going to complete another midseason turnaround.
That includes Sánchez, who became the team’s No. 3 starter earlier this month when it was announced that Stephen Strasburg would miss the rest of the season with carpal tunnel neuritis. Between Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin delivering inconsistent performances and neither Erick Fedde nor Austin Voth going deep into games, the pressure is on Sánchez to stabilize the middle of the rotation and avoid exacerbating the pitching staff’s struggles.
“In the first few innings, I feel the ball really weird,” Sánchez said Saturday after allowing five runs in five innings against the Red Sox. “I don’t know why. I don’t got an explanation for that but after that I [started] to figure it out with the ball down, especially because I need to work it with my changeup. So I think I got a couple pitches that I missed up but I did it with a purpose. All the time, for me the key is working down. As soon as I start to elevate the ball when I don’t want to, I pay the price.”
Saturday represented a step back for Sánchez, who was coming off an outing against the Miami Marlins in which he allowed just one run over seven innings with five hits, no walks and five strikeouts. It was an encouraging appearance for the right-hander, especially after he had failed to make it past the sixth inning in any of his previous four starts.
If the Nationals do manage to make it the playoffs, Sánchez will prove pivotal once again as the presumed starter of the win-or-go-home Game 3 of the Wild Card round. That job would’ve belonged to Corbin had Strasburg remained healthy, but the loss of the reigning World Series MVP leaves Sánchez as the only serviceable choice left on the roster.
At 36 years old, Sánchez has to prove that he still enough left in him to pitch like a middle-of-the-rotation arm. He managed to do that in 2019 by compiling a 3.42 ERA over his final 21 starts before coming through in the playoffs. A year later, the Nationals have put themselves in a position where they’re relying on Sánchez to do it once again.