ST. LOUIS -- As he walked toward the dugout, Anibal Sanchez turned toward first base and gave José Martínez a salute, a sign of respect toward the only Cardinal to collect a hit against him all night. He had just polished off the best postseason performance of his 14-year career, an unlikely no-hit bid carried into the eighth inning at Busch Stadium on Friday night, but he wanted to give a nod to the fellow Venezuelan who kept him from completing it.
On a team that boasts Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, it was Sánchez who flirted with history in the 2-0 victory in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. He flummoxed and frustrated the Cardinals until Martínez’s two-out single to center field ended his evening. On a night when the Nationals' already limited bullpen was without closer Daniel Hudson, away from the team on paternity leave, it was exactly what Washington needed to take a 1-0 lead in the NLCS.
“What he did tonight was truly special,” second baseman Howie Kendrick said. “I was hoping we were going to get a no-hitter tonight, but you can’t discount the fact of what he did tonight. It was special.”
Sánchez finished the night with 7 2/3 shutout innings of one-hit ball with five strikeouts, one walk and the deepest unsuccessful individual no-hit bid in a postseason game since Oct. 5, 1967, when Boston's Jim Lonborg allowed a hit with two outs in the eighth, also against St. Louis, in Game 2 of the World Series, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
For most of the night, Sánchez kept to himself, staying out of the dugout and keeping warm in the batting cage between innings. He had allowed himself to believe just a few batters before Martínez’s single, when Ryan Zimmerman went full extension at first base to steal a hit from Tommy Edman and record the first out of the eighth. He believed even more after he retired the next batter, Paul DeJong, on one pitch.
“And I said, 'OK, always behind a no-hitter, a good play has to happen,'” Sanchez said. “I said, OK, I [have] it.”
Sánchez had carried a no-hitter deep into a postseason game before. As a member of the Tigers, he threw six no-hit innings against the Red Sox in Game 1 of the 2013 American League Championship Series. He was far less efficient that night, with 12 strikeouts and six walks, running his pitch count up to 116 before being removed.
“Every time that I'm able to do that, of course I feel really good,” he said. “I just tried to execute every pitch that I threw today. I don't want to overthrow or even think of anything else. It's good when I have that kind of command, because it's easier for the catcher to call the game."
With his outing on Friday night, Sánchez became the first pitcher in postseason history with multiple outings of at least six innings with one or fewer hits allowed. And yet, when sizing up the rotation, he would not have been the first bet to toss a playoff no-hitter. Or the second. Or the third.
“I probably would have bet on him fourth, if I had four choices,” general manager Mike Rizzo said with a laugh. “But he has been terrific all season.”
And he delivered the way he has all season, by generating soft contact and using his entire arsenal of pitches. Among NL starting pitchers, no pitcher had generated a lower hard-hit rate than Sánchez. The Cardinals experienced that first-hand on Friday night. They had only one hard-hit ball, (an exit velocity higher than 95 mph, according to Statcast) and that was a flyout to the warning track from Marcell Ozuna in the second inning.
Sánchez lived on the corners and made it impossible to predict what was coming next. He threw 103 pitches and mixed in four almost evenly: 29 four-seam fastballs, 24 splitters, 19 cutters and 20 sinkers, as measured by Statcast. Throw in four curveballs and seven changeups, one pitch at 66.1 mph -- the slow changeup Sanchez has dubbed the butterfly, or “la mariposa” -- another at 92.7 mph and just about everything in between.
“I hated facing him,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “He's got, like, eight pitches. I never know what to look for, what to do. Do you look soft, do you look hard? I had very little success off of him, so I'm glad he's on this side now. Much of the same, watching him over here. It's just in, out, up, down, five pitches all the time. He's got, like, four different changeups, it's never-ending, and it's not fun to face when he's got it going like he did tonight.”
Manager Dave Martinez often issues a reminder, one he repeats almost ad nauseam, that although most people believe the Nationals have a “big three” in their rotation, in reality they have a "big four," including Sánchez. On Friday night it was Sánchez who did the reminding.