But routine hasn’t defined his professional baseball life: Over a nearly 10-year span, he dealt with the rigors of the minor leagues by filing away mental notes, hoping that one day it would end and he’would be in the majors for good. More recently, since he became a father in September 2016, he has handled the rigors by encouraging his wife, Dariela, and their young daughter, Sara, to join him on nearly every trip. Out of necessity, they climb into his Toyota Highlander and head off to chase his lifelong dream.
He doesn’t want to be on the road without them.
“The travel is the most difficult part of the minors,” Sanchez, 28, said last week in Spanish through a team interpreter. “I've always had my family with me. We don't spend hardly any time apart.”
He has been with the Washington Nationals since signing in 2007, not as an elite 17-year-old prospect but as a sure-handed shortstop with a little pop in his bat. Sanchez is the franchise’s second-longest-tenured player behind first baseman Ryan Zimmerman.
This season, Sanchez has been called up three times. He understands and appreciates his role as the extra guy who has to show up every day not exactly sure where he will play or even if he will play. He has become the preferred extra infielder, rather than Wilmer Difo. Sanchez is 4 for 17 this year, mostly in pinch-hit scenarios.
But he also has been optioned to the minors three times. On Saturday, he found himself back with Class AA Harrisburg, back to minor league life with no telling when or if he will return to the Nationals. And despite spending a decade with the organization, he is playing his final year with minor league options. After this season, he’ll have to go through waivers if the Nationals don’t keep him on the major league roster, meaning another club could claim him.
While he has considered quitting the game, Sanchez thinks about his wife and daughter, whom he brings to the ballpark almost every day. His daughter’s name is etched on his cleats, a frequent reminder of the person who gives him renewed hope that one day he will achieve his major league goal.
“I know it’s been a long career, but for me it feels like I just started because I haven’t spent a lot of time in the big leagues,” Sanchez said at his Nationals Park locker a day before he was optioned to the minors. “For me, I feel like this is the start of my career up here.”
With the Nationals, he sometimes does not appear in games for a week or more. When he does get a chance, usually to pinch-hit sometime after the fifth inning, he often does not reach base or play in the field.
Still, the work he devotes to every pinch-hit chance is calculated. Around the second inning of every game he’s in the big leagues, he leaves the dugout, walks down the tunnel and swings in the batting cage. He hits off the tee, takes front-toss pitches, then turns on the pitching machine. He may head back an inning or two later to loosen up on a stationary bike or stretch.
Versatility may be Sanchez’s most attractive attribute, what’s keeping him with the Nationals as a sometimes-utility man. Before games, he takes grounders from multiple positions. He can play anywhere in the infield. He has worked out in left field. When asked about Sanchez last week, Manager Dave Martinez said he took on a new role: third catcher.
“He said he’ll do it,” Martinez said, “and he feels comfortable doing it.”
“It’s tough because he has a family,” Martinez added. “He takes pride in what he does, takes groundballs, flyballs. The other day I saw him taking flyballs in left field, so he works diligently every day to get better, and that’s really what I like about him. He knows he may not get an at-bat for seven, eight, nine, 10 days maybe, but he’s going to get himself ready.”
When he’s in the minors, Sanchez advises younger prospects to pepper teammates, especially veterans, with questions about their approach at the plate. So he questions Matt Adams, Howie Kendrick and Zimmerman to prepare for possible pinch-hit chances. What he learned: Aggressiveness, not patience, is crucial for a hitter looking to get more opportunities.
This once surprised Sanchez, who said a defining characteristic of his approach was rooted in restraining from swinging at first-pitch strikes. For as long as he can remember, he usually has taken the first strike. Now, as a utility player who rarely gets at-bats — he has 151 plate appearances in parts of three seasons with the Nationals — he said he realizes the first strike may be the only chance he will get.
“This year, even in the minor leagues, I focus on being aggressive right from the get-go,” Sanchez said. “Every at-bat, I’m trying to be aggressive, to prepare for something up here when I need it.”
Sanchez wants to play in the majors, and he wants to stay there. So on summer nights, in cities around the Northeast, he keeps the dynamic the same: He, Dariela and Sara stay together, in their Highlander and in hotel rooms, as he bounces from city to city, team to team, on an uncertain journey.