It could have been worse, perhaps, had Marlins outfielder Mike Stanton squeezed Nix’s shot to right rather than watching it pop out of his glove after a diving effort. When Nix came to bat, with Sanchez’s pitch count creeping close to 100, he knew the stakes.
“Yeah, we were aware of it,” Nix said. “It was a relief, too.”
The Nationals, now hitting .224 as a team with a National League-low .295 on-base percentage, managed four hits in the final three innings, all singles, two of them by Michael Morse. On Friday night, the Nationals won despite striking out 17 times, tying a team record. On Sunday, Sanchez racked up 11 strikeouts — 10 swinging — as the Nationals whiffed 13 times total. The Nationals struck out 38 times this series, and in their past four games, three opposing starters (Roy Halladay, Ricky Nolasco and Sanchez) have struck out at least 10.
“If it’s an indication that a guy is really struggling, it can bother you,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “Certainly, we’d rather have the ball in play. But an out is an out. Certainly, we’re trying to make contact.”
The Nationals have overcome their dearth of offense with strong pitching and often-stellar defense. This weekend, even after Sunday’s loss, they won a series in Florida for just the fourth time in 19 trips since baseball returned. They sit at 16-18 despite missing Ryan Zimmerman for the past 26 games and one of the majors’ least productive offenses. But when their pitching or defense breaks down, it makes for an unsightly result.
Starter Livan Hernandez lasted five innings, never able to find a rhythm following a 1-2-3 first inning. Hernandez allowed six runs on eight hits and two walks, the knockout blow coming when Gaby Sanchez pummeled a 3-2, chest-high sinker over the left-center field fence for a three-run home run.
“The sinker was not working too good today,” Hernandez said. “It didn’t break like it’s supposed to break. It’s tough for me — it’s the pitch I throw most of the time. I got to work in the bullpen and try to fix it.”
Anibal Sanchez dominated from the outset. Nix reached on an error in the first and Sanchez hit Danny Espinosa with a pitch to lead off the third. Other than those blemishes, he was flawless. He struck out five of the first seven batters he faced. Twice in the first five innings, Sanchez struck out all three batters he faced. Some batters felt the unusually bright sky created a backdrop that made the ball difficult to see. The main obstacle, though, was Sanchez.
“I just couldn’t pick up the ball,” third baseman Jerry Hairston said. “But he’s a good pitcher, man. There’s a reason why he’s thrown a no-hitter before. We went back and looked at the video. There are some pitches you’re not going to hit. Hitters hit mistakes. He didn’t make many mistakes today.”
Following the Minnesota Twins’ Francisco Liriano on Tuesday and the Detroit Tigers’ Justin Verlander on Saturday, Sanchez was three innings from becoming the third pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the past six days.
To be sure, Sanchez came equipped with the stuff to pull it off. Sanchez would have joined Verlander, in a club that still numbers 29, as a pitcher who has thrown multiple no-hitters. Sanchez threw a no-hitter in his 14th career start in 2006, and he also took a no-hitter into the ninth inning on April 22 against the Colorado Rockies, three starts prior to Sunday, before Dexter Fowler led off the inning with a single.
“He really changes speeds and hits spots,” Nix said. “He had good stuff, obviously. But he mixes it up well, keeps guys off-balance.”
Sanchez could not finish the deed against the Nationals, either, which did not detract from the black cloud hovering over Washington’s bats. After an off day, the Nationals will face Atlanta’s Tim Hudson, only the pitcher who has dominated them more than any other — he’s 11-2 with a 1.88 ERA against the Nats. They did not make history, but it’s not about to get any easier.