Anibal Sanchez's performance wows young stars and established vets in Nationals' clubhouse

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ST. LOUIS — Anibal Sanchez carved up the Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS on Friday night, holding them hitless into the eighth inning in the most important non-clinching contest of the most important series in franchise history.

For the host Cardinals, it was death by 66 mph changeups, 85 mph cutters, 91 mph sinkers and fastballs of every shape, size, and eye level. The Cardinals hit one ball hard in the first seven innings, a fly out by Marcel Ozuna that center fielder Michael A. Taylor camped under in the second. 

MORE: Why the Nationals will win the World Series

“I just want to be out of the power zone of those guys,” Sanchez said. “Every mistake — if you make a mistake against those guys, they're pretty strong, they can change the score in one swing. I just tried to keep the ball on the corners, my two-seamer was working really good today and we used it a lot.”

And as he was dominating, racking up outs without giving up hits, every scribe in the Busch Stadium press box was scrambling to find Anibal Sanchez facts. He eventually lost the no-hit attempt with one out in the eighth inning, on a single by Jose Martinez. 

And there are plenty of options out there. This was the second time in his career he’s started a postseason game with at least six no-hit innings, and he’s the only person in MLB history to be able to make that claim. The first time that happened was in 2013, when he started Game 1 of the ALCS for the Tigers and was pulled from the game after six innings, with 12 strikeouts and 116 pitches against the Red Sox. 

And then there’s the career revival angle. 

Sanchez was awful for the Tigers in 2017 (6.41 ERA, 1.595 WHIP) and then cut by the Twins in spring training 2018 before thriving with the Braves (2.83 ERA in 136 2/3 innings) when they gave him a shot. And then there’s his actual regular-season no-hitter, which he threw as a member of the Florida Marlins on Sept. 6, 2006. He was a 22-year-old, and he was brilliant. He needed just 103 pitches, despite walking four and striking out six.

And here’s what stood out to me about that game, even though it’s not really about him. When Anibal Sanchez threw that no-hitter in 2006, Juan Soto was only 7 years old. No, really. Soto patrols left field for the Nationals, and at 20 years old, he’s one of the game’s brightest young budding superstars.

"Amazing. This guy has been really good the whole year, making all the kind of pitches," Soto said. "I know how hard it is to face him. I faced him last year. It was really tough. He was really amazing."

But, again, Soto was just 7 years old when Sanchez first generated headlines across the country. I wanted to know what Soto was doing back then.

“When I was 7 years old, I think I was playing little league,” he told me with a laugh. “My dad would take me on all the Saturdays back to the field. I’d go to school Monday to Friday and Saturday was my day. Every Saturday I’d go to the field, as much as I can.”

And if Soto is a budding big league superstar who finished second in the 2018 NL Rookie of the Year voting as a 19-year-old, he must have been a pretty good hitter at 7, right? Not so quick, baseball fans.  

“I was more of a pitcher. I was a really good pitcher, had really good changeups and other stuff,” Soto said. “I’d just go to the field to play baseball. As a hitter, I just tried to go and enjoy it. That was the key when I was a kid, just go to the field and enjoy as much as I can, have fun with those guys. Those games, they never come back. Those games, they helped me a lot to know how to enjoy the game and how to be excited for this.”

MORE: Why the Cardinals will win the World Series

And he was excited Friday night. Not just because of Sanchez’s dominance, but because the Nationals held on to win 2-0 to take Game 1 of the NLCS, the first NLCS appearance for the franchise since the move from Montreal to Washington, D.C. 

Ryan Zimmerman, unlike Soto, was already in the big leagues when Sanchez threw his no-hitter for the Marlins in 2006. Zimmerman was 21 years old, playing for the only MLB franchise he’s ever known. He’s faced Sanchez 61 times in his career — he’s only faced two pitchers more times, Cole Hamels (97 PAs) and Tim Hudson (67 PAs) — and he’s not had much success, mustering a .200 average and .551 OPS.  

Zimmerman, in fact, was 2 for 12 against Sanchez in 2006. 

“Back in the day, he was 94, 95 (mph), and obviously he was a different pitcher,” Zimmerman told SN. “He still would cut it, sink it, mix it up a bit, but he was 94, 95, too. He’s been a really good pitcher for a long time. He moves the ball around, adds and subtracts.”

And so it was fitting that Zimmerman, of all people, turned in what seemed to be the signature defensive play of the game, the moment that preserved the no-hitter. 

Tommy Edman smoked a line drive leading off the eighth inning that Zimmerman, playing first base, dove to his right and speared at near full extension. It’s a play that the veteran made routinely as a third baseman in his younger years, but was incredibly impressive at 35 and many injuries later. 

“When we have three guys on the right side of second base, I’m pretty close to the line,” Zimmerman said. “So basically anything that’s hard to my right is the only thing I have to go after, so I basically know I’m responsible for the four hole on a hard-hit ball. Just kind of see it in the air and go for it. It was either me or nobody. Howie (Kendrick, the second baseman) is not getting to that one.”

MORE: Three takeaways from Nationals' Game 1 win

Even though it was the eighth inning, that was the only play that was even a remotely challenging defensive chance for the Nationals. The first 21 outs of the game were a mixture of strikeouts, can-of-corn fly balls and ground outs, with maybe the exception of a pop-up hit by Paul Goldschmidt that Trea Turner chased down in shallow left field. But even on that one, he was able to get there in time to set his feet before catching the baseball. 

“Juan makes me play left field every once in a while, so I’ve had to do that a couple times this year,” Turner said with a grin. “But if it hangs up long enough, I feel like I can make a play on it. Every out matters, so it was good to get that one.”

When Martinez finally ended the no-hit bid, manager Davey Martinez pulled Sanchez from the game. Sean Doolittle retired all four hitters he faced to seal the win. 

“We’re gonna take one game at a time,” said Adam Eaton, who tripled and scored the second run of the game for the Nationals. “That’s kind of been our motto ever since we stunk in April and May. We’ve got to stick with that. Can’t get too high, can’t get too low.”

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