by Jesse Dougherty

ST. LOUIS — Some St. Louis Cardinals fans even clapped — because how could they not? — when Aníbal Sánchez was finally finished carving through their team at Busch Stadium on Friday night.

Sánchez came four outs away from throwing the third postseason no-hitter in baseball history. Instead, in a consolation he would certainly take, the 35-year-old righty led the Washington Nationals to a 2-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. He gave up one hit and four base-runners in 7⅔ innings. He got the game to Sean Doolittle, avoiding the Nationals’ middle relievers altogether, and the lefty retired all four batters he faced out of the bullpen.

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And that effort, when totaled up, gave Washington a 1-0 lead in its first National League Championship Series.

“It's good when I got that kind of command,” Sánchez said, and that was the only part of his performance that was understated. “Because it's easier for the catcher to call the game."

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Sánchez was on the mound because of what it took for the Nationals to get here. They needed everything Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin could offer to beat the Milwaukee Brewers in the wild-card game, then Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. They needed 224 pitches from Strasburg, the most of any pitcher in the divisional round, and 200 from Scherzer. Each made one of their three appearances out of the bullpen. Corbin made two in relief, with mixed results, and tossed 107 pitches in a Game 1 start. Dave Martinez managed as if his life depended on every out. And it worked.

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But he couldn’t do that against the Cardinals. He didn’t expect to plug Scherzer or Strasburg or Corbin into the late innings. The NLCS is more reflective of the regular season, as Scherzer noted Friday, and so Sánchez started with a shorthanded bullpen behind him. Closer Daniel Hudson remained in Phoenix following the birth of his third daughter. The Nationals were also down catcher Kurt Suzuki and center fielder Victor Robles, two everyday players, because of injuries. It made it fair to favor the Cardinals in the opener, if only slightly, if only because Washington’s lineup and late relief was thinned.

Then Sánchez flipped that logic on its head.

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“I probably would have bet on him fourth,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said, with a laugh, of which of his starters he would have guessed would flirt with a playoff no-hitter. That’s because it’s easy to cast aside Sánchez in a near $95 million rotation stacked with Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin. But he has now allowed just one run in 12 ⅔ innings this postseason. And, in the larger picture, he’s been rock solid since returning from the injured list in mid-May.

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He continued that with his best command in the early innings Friday. His low-90s fastball painted the corners. His cutter worked on both sides of the plate. He didn’t lean too hard on his change-up, his favorite pitch, but instead used it in particular counts. He set down the first 10 batters he faced, on just 35 pitches, and soon finished the third by stranding one of the Cardinals’ four base-runners in scoring position.

There was already a slim lead to protect because Yan Gomes doubled in Howie Kendrick in the second. The Nationals would leave 12 runners on base and often let Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas wiggle out of jams. Sánchez just made sure it never mattered.

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The Cardinals, like the Dodgers five days ago, couldn't solve a healthy mix of his four-seam fastball, change-up, cutter and sinker. That's three different fastballs coming out of the exact same arm slot. Then a change-up that looks like a fastball until, a nanosecond later, it begins falling away from swings. Coaches and teammates often praise Sánchez's ability to change speeds better than most pitchers. The Cardinals then learned that the hard way.

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“He was spot-on with everything today,” Gomes said. “Any time we were throwing a pitch, it meant something to set up another pitch."

The Nationals added an insurance run in the next half when Kendrick brought Eaton in with a two-out single. Then Sánchez came out for the seventh while Tanner Rainey began tossing as the inning began. But Sánchez sidestepped his second hit batter, leaving Yadier Molina on first, and Rainey sat down. Sánchez was at 89 pitches and due up second in the eighth. Yet, without Hudson, Martinez needed as many outs as he could get from his starter. So he let Sánchez bat and pushed him into the eighth with the no-hitter intact.

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Sánchez went this deep in about half of his starts in the regular season. Doing so usually led to trouble. Tommy Edman hit a bullet to lead off the inning, and it seemed bound for outfield grass, but Ryan Zimmerman sprung into a dive and plucked it out of the air. Then, after Sánchez got one more hitter to fly out, José Martínez ripped a single to center and the fans were snapped out of their hours-long lull.

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“I don’t claim to be superstitious,” Martinez said. “But when you got a no-hitter, I was freezing my butt off and didn’t want to put a jacket on and I stayed with this, just this sweatshirt the whole game."

Once the hit fell, and once the short burst of noise faded, Martinez walked out to make his first and only move. Sánchez, having come so close to history, kept his head low as he walked into a high-five of teammates and out of sight. He did his job and then some. He used 103 pitches to deliver the game to the only Nationals closer in the building. And Doolittle, tasked with recording four outs, soon finished Sánchez’s masterpiece by shutting the door.

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Inning-by-inning recap

by Sam Fortier

Ninth inning (Nationals 2, Cardinals 0):

The Nationals stranded two runners in the top of the ninth. It still mattered because, all night, they never got the breakthrough hit to put the game out of reach. They turned back to Sean Doolittle in the hopes he could polish off a four-out save. He did it for the win.

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Eighth inning (Nationals 2, Cardinals 0):

Aníbal Sánchez carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning and got some help from Ryan Zimmerman on a diving stop which was undoubtedly one of the finest plays of his career.

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Then the right-hander allowed a one-out liner to José Martínez which fell into center field and that no one could catch. He walked off the mound and pointed his glove at Martínez as respect for breaking it up. The St. Louis crowd gave him a standing ovation.

The no-hit bid over, Dave Martinez came to get Sánchez at 103 pitches. Sean Doolittle entered and, quickly, dispatched the one hitter he needed to face with a ground out to third.

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Seventh inning (Nationals 2, Cardinals 0):

The Nationals pushed across a critical insurance run and, most importantly, didn’t waste a one-out triple as Howie Kendrick delivered again for the Nationals with a run-scoring single. Adam Eaton’s decision to stretch what would’ve been a double into a triple as the Cardinals tried to gather it in left-center field was huge because he might have not have scored on Kendrick’s single otherwise. It proved valuable when, two batters later, the Nationals struggled to come through again and stranded the bases loaded.

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Aníbal Sánchez successfully navigated the Cardinals heart of the order for the third time. He hit Yadier Molina but limited it to that. The [redacted] remains intact. Stay very still.

Sixth inning (Nationals 1, Cardinals 0):

The Nationals got a one-out double from Ryan Zimmerman — who’s raking this postseason (7-for-18) — but couldn’t do much with it. Michael A. Taylor struck out for the fourth time in his last six at-bats and yielded the chance to Aníbal Sánchez after the Cardinals intentionally walked Yan Gomes. The Nationals decided not to pinch-hit the guy throwing a [redacted] and he grounded out.

Aníbal Sánchez hit pinch-hitter Randy Arozarena but, other than that, he retired the side. He still has not allowed a [redacted]. He’ll face the heart of the order — including Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — for the third time next inning.

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Fifth inning (Nationals 1, Cardinals 0):

The Nationals threatened again, putting two on with one out, but they couldn’t come through. Adam Eaton continued an unusually poor night at the plate with a pop out on the fourth pitch and, after an Anthony Rendon walk, Juan Soto grounded out to second. Busch Stadium loved that.

Aníbal Sánchez has not allowed a hit through five innings. The veteran right-hander is flying through his outing and, after the fifth, he sits at just 56 pitches. Whether it’s the cold air or the Cardinals’ approach or something else, it’s working.

Fourth inning (Nationals 1, Cardinals 0):

Juan Soto got booed for walking slowly back to the batter’s box. The left fielder led off the inning for the Nationals and, when a bunt against the shift rolled foul, Soto walked back to the plate from first base. The 20-year-old, out of breath, really walked, and Busch Stadium did not appreciate it. They cheered loudly when the next pitch zipped by for a strike. They cheered even louder when he grounded out to short.

The Nationals came as close to danger as they have so far this series in the fourth. Kolten Wong swiped second and, on a throwing error by Yan Gomes, scampered to third. Aníbal Sánchez wriggled out of it with a Marcell Ozuna pop out to third, but this underscored what’s likely a huge part of this series, the base paths. The Nationals and Cardinals tied for the NL lead in steals this season (116) and while the Cardinals have Yadier Molina behind the plate, an all-time backstop who throws runners out, the Nationals struggle more in that department with Gomes and Kurt Suzuki.

Third inning (Nationals 1, Cardinals 0):

The Nationals continued expanding the zone to concerning levels in the third inning. The first and third outs, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon, didn’t as much, but Adam Eaton did for the second at-bat in a row. He went down for a tough Miles Mikolas curveball and saw only four pitches. Eaton is an offensive catalyst for the Nationals because he often sees a lot of offerings, drives up pitch counts and forces the pitcher to reveal everything he’s got. The fact that he’s not doing that is as concerning as his two strikeouts.

Aníbal Sánchez is dealing. The Nationals’ veteran right-hander is perhaps most impressively spotting his fastball wherever he wants it. Location plus uncertainty hitters have when facing him — Manager Dave Martinez joked before the game he has “like nine” pitches — has enabled him to blow 91-mph fastballs past hitters accustomed to hitting pitches 10 mph faster.

Second inning (Nationals 1, Cardinals 0):

The Nationals had gotten almost nothing from their catching position so far this postseason — 1-for-18 with seven strikeouts. Then Yan Gomes delivered in the second. He smacked a double off the left-center field wall and ensured the Nationals wouldn’t squander Howie Kendrick’s leadoff double. The Nationals scored first in this series.

Aníbal Sánchez is cruising and somewhat following the model established by the Braves against the Cardinals in Game 2 of the NLDS. The Braves beat the Cardinals by throwing 12 four-seam fastball in 116 pitches then. The sample size is small now, but Sánchez has thrown his fastball on just six of 24 pitches and proving that, once again, the Cardinals struggle to hit anything off-speed or breaking. He’s through six up, six down.

First inning (Nationals 0, Cardinals 0):

Miles Mikolas is not a strikeout pitcher. He’s fanned four or fewer hitters in 21 of his 32 starts this season. Then he got three Nationals in that first inning alone. The key was getting his three victims — Trea Turner, Adam Eaton and Juan Soto — to expand the zone and chase, which was the Nationals’ exact problem in Game 1 against the Dodgers in the NLDS. Washington can’t afford to repeat those same mistakes.

Aníbal Sánchez cruised through the first inning with a strikeout, groundout and fly out. Manager Dave Martinez’s argument that his team has a Big Four, not a Big Three with its high-paid aces, has borne out in the playoffs so far. In Game 3 of the NLDS, Sánchez delivered five innings of one-run ball.

Pregame:

Busch Stadium slowly filled on Friday night. Those who came wore sweatshirts as the temperature dipped to 45 degrees. The light pulsed from the scoreboard in center field. The national anthem singer held the “Br-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAve” note possibly as long as it’s ever been held. Then suddenly, the theatrics ended. The Cardinals took the field and Trea Turner knocked dirt from his cleats in the batter’s box. The Nationals’ first NLCS was about to begin.

Roster

The Nationals announced their postseason roster on Friday afternoon with 11 pitchers and 14 position players.

Starters (four): Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sánchez

Relievers (seven): Sean Doolittle, Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, Austin Voth, Wander Suero, Javy Guerra, Roenis Elías

Catchers (two): Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki

Infielders (seven): Matt Adams, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Brian Dozier, Howie Kendrick, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman

Outfielders (five): Adam Eaton, Gerardo Parra, Victor Robles, Juan Soto, Michael A. Taylor

Paternity list (one): Reliever Daniel Hudson