Anibal Sanchez had impeccable timing with his midseason turnaround last year and there could be a parallel to draw, if Sunday's start against the Marlins was a sign of more to come.
In his first start since news of Stephen Strasburg's season-ending surgery, Sanchez put in his best performance of the 2020 season so far. He carved up the Marlins through seven innings with only one run on five hits allowed. He had zero walks after issuing multiple free passes in each of his previous three starts.
The Nationals broke out offensively with a five-run fifth inning to beat the Marlins 9-3 and gave Sanchez his first win of the season.
"I saw a different Anibal," manager Davey Martinez said. "That's the Anibal I know and I've known for a very long time. When he can split the plate like he did, when he keeps the ball down and down, he's going to be very effective. He did that today and you see the results."
Martinez added that he spoke with catcher Kurt Suzuki once Sanchez left the game and Suzuki said it was "the best he's thrown this year." The numbers certainly back that up.
Sanchez entered the day with an 8.50 ERA, having not made it past 5 1/3 innings in any of his previous four outings. He had allowed 17 earned runs in 18 total innings. Though it was a small sample size, his 2.5 HR/9 ratio was particularly concerning because it was up near where it was in 2017 (2.2), the last time he had a bad season.
Sanchez has had a seesaw career where he has fluctuated between the extremes of brilliance and mediocrity. Based on previous trends, the fact he's coming off two consecutive good seasons means he might be due for a step back.
But Sanchez feels he made progress on Sunday in a way similar to how he figured things out last May. Keeping his fastball down is the key.
"When that happens, I feel really good. My secondary pitches are more effective when I've got my fastball down on both sides of the plate," he said.
The Marlins' only run came on a fastball Sanchez left up in the zone. Corey Dickerson smacked an opposite field homer right over the fence in left field. He ran into a fastball that was on the outer edge of the plate, but belt high.
Keeping the ball down helped Sanchez induce eight groundouts and two double plays, the second to escape a mini-jam in the sixth inning with two men on and the powerful Jesus Aguilar at the plate. Like with homers, grounders are a good indicator of success for Sanchez, as he entered this start with the lowest groundball rate of his career (29%), per FanGraphs.
After Sanchez went seven innings, the Nats turned to Ryne Harper who polished off the final two. They only had to use two pitchers the day after a double-header with 17 games in the next 16 days and no off-days until Sept. 9.
Sanchez gave the Nats a boost at a good time. Now the Nats have to determine if he has indeed turned the corner and, if he has, whether they have enough in their rotation to move forward with following Strasburg's loss. The Aug. 31 trade deadline is quickly approaching.