ST. LOUIS – The Washington Nationals’ first-ever National League Championship Game was bound to be historic.
Anibal Sanchez nearly made it doubly so.
Sanchez came within four outs of no-hitting the St. Louis Cardinals, instead settling for 7 ⅔ gutty innings of one-hit ball as Washington captured Game 1 with a 2-0 conquest Friday night at Busch Stadium.
Sanchez, 35, nearly became the first pitcher to throw a playoff no-hitter since the late Roy Halladay for Philadelphia in Game 1 of the 2010 NL Division Series against Cincinnati.
He came perhaps one strike short.
With two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, pinch hitter Jose Martinez battled Sanchez for seven pitches, at one point desperately fouling off a 2-2 changeup to stay alive, before dropping a clean single in front of center fielder Michael A. Taylor.
Manager Dave Martinez did not hesitate to hook Sanchez, who threw 103 pitches. Sean Doolittle recorded the final four outs, in place of closer Daniel Hudson, who missed Game 1 for the Friday birth of his third child.
Sanchez knows of both no-hitters and playoff no-hit bids.
As a Florida Marlin, he pitched the fourth no-hitter in franchise history in 2006, against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
And as a Detroit Tiger, he pitched six no-hit innings in Game 1 of the 2013 American League Championship Series. On that night, however, he walked six Boston Red Sox and exited with the no-hitter intact after throwing 116 pitches. The Red Sox eventually registered a ninth-inning hit in the Tigers’ 1-0 victory.
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Sanchez was far more efficient Friday, which was 63 years and three days since Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series for the New York Yankees.
With a sinker, cutter and changeup repertoire that had his fastest pitch topping out at 92 mph, Sanchez needed just 75 pitches to navigate the first six innings, ultimately walking just one and striking out five, though he hit two batters. He needed just one defensive gem – first baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s laid-out snag of a Tommy Edman liner leading off the eighth – and otherwise mystified the Cardinals.
Perfect through three innings, Sanchez issued a one-out walk to Kolten Wong in the fourth inning and he eventually reached third with two outs on a stolen base and throwing error on catcher Yan Gomes.
But Sanchez induced a popout from the dangerous Marcell Ozuna to end that threat. In the sixth, pinch-hitter Randy Arozarena was hit with a 1-2 pitch, and he too reached third on a steal and a groundout.
But once again, Sanchez induced a harmless fly ball, from Wong, to end the threat.
The rest of the night, it was a pitching clinic in adding and subtracting, spotting up and flummoxing the Cardinals, with a curveball that bottomed out at 66 mph and everything else in between.
In Game 2, the Cardinals will see an entirely different look from the Nationals when three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer takes the mound. But Scherzer, Sanchez’s teammate in Detroit and for this year in Washington, appreciates greatness when he sees it.
“His ability to change speeds, it’s probably one of the best in the game,” Scherzer said Friday. “The way he can change speeds, even on his changeup, he can change speeds, I mean, he can slow it all the way down, we call it the butterfly, he can throw a butterfly in there and you get guys just every hitter just waves at it.
“So that’s what makes him such a treat to watch.”
Such a treat that the Nationals playing behind him could practically pull up a chair, themselves. Oh, Marcell Ozuna provided one hard-hit ball – a 105-mph fly to the warning track in the top of the second inning – and shortstop Trea Turner drifted fairly deep into left field to snare a seventh-inning pop-up from Paul Goldschmidt.
Otherwise, it was a litany of routine – so much soft contact, so many perfunctory plays.
Gomes provided the necessary offense with an RBI double in the second inning, and Howie Kendrick relieved significant tension with an RBI single in the seventh. The rest of the night was Sanchez’s.
He handed a 1-0 NLCS lead to the Nationals, who will now hand the ball to Scherzer – and Mad Max has one tough act to follow.
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