CHICAGO — Aníbal Sánchez’s reaction when the ball left the bat of the Chicago Cubs’ Christopher Morel was one the Washington Nationals’ pitching staff is becoming all too familiar with. Sánchez didn’t bother to see where it landed, instead holding out his glove and awaiting the next ball — while trying to forget all about the one he had just left over the plate.
All the while, the Wrigley Field fans roared as Morel’s two-run blast sailed high into the left field seats. It was the second home run of the third inning — Nelson Velázquez hit a solo shot two batters earlier — as the Cubs grabbed the lead for good in a 6-3 win Monday night.
While allowing four runs, Sánchez gave Manager Dave Martinez five-plus innings, a minor victory for a bullpen that has been heavily taxed of late. But he wasn’t able to do nearly enough to get a win for the Nationals (36-75), who have lost six in a row and fell to 1-7 in August. With the defeat, the Nationals hold a 5 1/2-game margin on the Oakland Athletics for the worst record in baseball.
“We tried to stretch him out for another inning, knowing our bullpen has been taxed,” Martinez said. “He gave us five strong innings; we just couldn’t get that sixth inning from him.”
Pitching has been the root of the Nationals’ massive struggles of late. Washington entered Monday’s game having been outscored 53-25 in August, with a similar theme taking hold in most games: The starter doesn’t last long, a result of too many home runs allowed, and then the offense doesn’t have enough juice to claw out of the early deficit.
Only one other starter had pitched at least five innings in the Nationals’ eight tries in August — Cory Abbott lasted five in the Nationals’ lone win of the month.
Sánchez retired the side in order in the first two innings, striking out a pair with his change-up. But in the third, he allowed a solo shot to Velázquez on a low slider that caught too much of the plate.
After walking Nick Madrigal, Sánchez had a six-pitch at-bat with Morel that included five pickoff attempts. Maybe he threw a bad pitch or maybe he lost his focus, but his 88.8-mph cutter exited Morel’s bat at 109.4 mph and the Cubs (44-64) never looked back.
“I tried to execute my fastball down and away, and I missed a little bit up in the middle,” Sánchez said. “That guy just put a really good swing on it. Like I always say, every time that I make a mistake, I pay for it.”
Sánchez came out for the sixth, but back-to-back singles ended his night after 91 pitches. Steve Cishek entered, and Nico Hoerner singled on his first pitch to give the Cubs a 4-1 lead. They added two more runs against Hunter Harvey in the seventh. A defensive blunder led to the second run — Rafael Ortega left second base early and should’ve been picked off at third, but Maikel Franco was too far from the base and couldn’t apply the tag. Ortega then scored on a sacrifice fly.
In March, the Nationals signed Sánchez, 38, to a minor league deal as a possible back-of-the-rotation arm who could solidify a staff that they hoped would include Stephen Strasburg, Erick Fedde, Josiah Gray and Joe Ross. But all of those players, minus Gray, are injured, and so are the younger pitchers who got a chance to replace them, Evan Lee and Jackson Tetreault. That means Sánchez is likely to continue to get opportunities to pitch despite his 7.56 ERA and eight home runs allowed in five starts.
“A lot of it has to [do] with just getting behind hitters and then having to throw strikes,” Martinez said of the home runs allowed by his starters recently. “We got to start working ahead of hitters. … When Aníbal does that, he’s really good. He can mix things up and keep guys off balance. When he’s behind, he’s got to get more in the strike zone — and he knows that.”
How did the Nationals score? They blasted two home runs: a solo shot by Luke Voit in the sixth and a pinch-hit, two-run homer by Joey Meneses in the eighth. The Nationals managed eight hits but went 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position. Victor Robles had two opportunities with a runner 90 feet away and two outs — in the fifth and seventh — but struck out swinging on three pitches each time.
What did Martinez say about returning to Wrigley Field? “I have great memories here — first major league field I stepped on. Every time I come back here, I go outside and I see this field and see some of these guys I’ve known for 35 years, so it’s awesome to come back and see them. I tell the guys, especially young guys that never been here before, ‘Hey, when you step on that field, man, it’s something else, so enjoy it and have fun doing it.’ ”