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The Washington Nationals defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 2-0 on Friday night in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series without the assistance of co-aces Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
Both pitchers were unavailable after helping Washington defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in a hotly contested five-game division-series tussle.
Instead, the Nats handed the ball to veteran Anibal Sanchez, and the 35-year-old right-hander exceeded their wildest expectations.
Through seven innings at Busch Stadium, Sanchez held the Cardinals hitless. In the eighth, he recorded two outs, including one on an impressive diving catch by veteran first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. It looked like the type of play that would ultimately uphold a historic no-hitter and go down in the replay annals.
Instead, after 7.2 frames of hitless work, Sanchez surrendered a clean single to Cardinals pinch hitter Jose Martinez.
His bid for an October no-no ended. Yet the Nationals held on to win. And Sanchez’s performance solidified an undeniable fact: The Nationals are officially and irrefutably a World Series threat.
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That was technically true when they finished the regular season with a 93-69 record and grabbed the National League’s top wild-card position. It was more true when they engineered a come-from-behind win in the NL Wild Card Game against the Milwaukee Brewers.
It was even more true when they toppled the 106-win Dodgers in the division series, again winning the decisive contest in come-from-behind fashion.
Now, with Sanchez dealing like an ace against the Cards, it’s true with a capital T.
Washington employs Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner who posted a 2.92 ERA with 12.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 172.1 regular-season frames and has fanned 16 in 13 innings this postseason with a 2.77 ERA.
It also boasts Stephen Strasburg, who has backed up a 3.32 ERA and 251 strikeouts in 209 regular-season innings in 2019 with a 2.40 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 15 postseason innings thus far.
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Lefty Patrick Corbin, meanwhile, is a solid No. 3 with a 3.25 ERA and 238 strikeouts in 202 regular-season innings and 14 strikeouts in eight postseason frames, including a dominant turn out of the bullpen in the Nationals’ Game 5 division-series victory over Los Angeles.
Now, with Sanchez dealing Friday, the Nationals appear to be stacked in the pitching department.
Sanchez didn’t overpower the Cardinals with triple-digit velocity. Rather, he relied on an arsenal of well-placed corner pitches and off-speed offerings.
The result was frequent whiffs or weak contact by St Louis hitters.
“Everybody talks about Stras, Scherzer, Corbin. Anibal’s been [a] big part of why we are here too,” manager Dave Martinez told reporters. “He’s a big part of our success, and man, he goes out there, and he gives us a chance to win every time he’s out there.”
In Game 1 of the 2013 American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox, he twirled six no-hit innings. Add Friday’s feat, and he’s in history-making territory, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Sanchez wobbled with the Tigers in 2017 and wound up on the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens before ultimately landing on the injured list with a hamstring issue.
Mix in his postseason experience and pedigree, however, and he’s an intriguing X-factor, as Friday’s showing demonstrated.
The Nationals can’t live without offensive anchors Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. They’ll rise and fall with Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and closer Sean Doolittle, who buttresses a bullpen that ranked last in MLB with a 5.66 regular-season ERA.
If Sanchez adds another silver bullet in Martinez’s chamber, though, these Nats go from scrappy hopeful to full-blown Fall Classic threat.
The Cardinals ranked 22nd in baseball with a .737 team OPS. Meanwhile, in the American League, the New York Yankees ranked No. 3 with an .829 OPS and the Houston Astros finished No. 1 with an .848 OPS. The competition will get stiffer, assuming the Nationals advance.
For the moment, however, the Nats are on a roll. And Sanchez’s near no-hitter adds a stiff wind to their sails.
They survived the wild-card win-or-go-home crucible. They vanquished the mighty Dodgers.
Now, courtesy of Sanchez’s heroics, they have a 1-0 lead in the NLCS…and another hurler to count on.
All statistics current as of Friday and courtesy of Baseball Reference.