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Aníbal Sánchez turns back the clock in Nationals’ victory over Padres

Aníbal Sánchez was nearly flawless for five innings Thursday, holding the Padres to a run and one hit. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

SAN DIEGO — The veteran sat in a chair by his corner locker, licking his finger to turn the page of a well-worn notebook, twiddling a pen between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. The kid leaned forward and listened, committing each pitch sequence to memory, learning when to call the change-up that drops like a shot-down plane and when to ask for the one that would float like a butterfly through the San Diego air Thursday night.

Pitcher Aníbal Sánchez and catcher Keibert Ruiz are an improbable pair. When Sánchez debuted in 2006, Ruiz was seven years old. When Ruiz debuted last summer, Sánchez, 38, was out of baseball and enjoying life as a father and husband in Miami. But the circumstances of this year — filled with bad results and injured starters — have led to an August of opportunities for Sánchez, who missed the first three and a half months with a nerve impingement in his neck.

So before holding the San Diego Padres to a run over five sharp innings, he and Ruiz studied hitters and scouting reports. Sánchez did most of the talking ahead of a 3-1 win for the Nationals (40-80), who slipped ahead when Padres reliever Josh Hader plunked Luke Voit and issued a bases-loaded walk to Nelson Cruz in the ninth. Ruiz padded the lead with a lined sac fly to left. Sánchez had long ago pointed to his notes and an iPad, sifting through clips of his matchup against the Padres last weekend. He throws anywhere between six and eight different pitches, depending on who you ask. In the series opener, he threw 79 total, topping out at 91.5 mph and reaching 63.7 on the low end.

Catching him has been a unique test for the 24-year-old Ruiz. That goes for game-planning and literally catching the ball. On Thursday, though, they found a rhythm and traded zeros with Yu Darvish. As a staff, the Nationals held the Padres (66-55) to three hits.

“When we have a conversations, I let him know why we have to make this call or what we have to do in those situations," Sánchez said of working with Ruiz. "For me, I learned a lot through my career and I have some things I want to teach him. And he’s good. He’s good behind the plate, he just needs to be on the same page with me.”

Sánchez and Darvish combined to retire the first 14 hitters who stepped in. Breaking the streak was Ildemaro Vargas, who put the Nationals up with a solo homer to right in the third. An inning later, Manny Machado matched him by ripping Sánchez’s 3-0 fastball into the left field seats, dialing the exit velocity to 111 mph.

Vargas finished 2 for 2 against Darvish with that homer and a single. The rest of Washington’s order was silent until César Hernández and Alex Call chased Darvish with singles in the ninth. Darvish threw 74 strikes and just 22 balls. That’s how Sánchez was left without a decision in his best start since … Game 1 of the National League Championship Series in 2019? Or maybe Aug. 23, 2020, when he held the Miami Marlins to a run on five hits in seven innings?

Whatever the case, Sánchez highlighted the outing with two of his signature pitches. During that 2019 run, the change-up was coined “The Mariposa” because of its resemblance to a free-spirited butterfly, flying anywhere but into opponents’ bats. In the third inning Thursday, then, Trent Grisham hacked at the 63.7-mph version and nearly fell down on his way to a swinging strikeout. In the fourth, Josh Bell, the former Nationals first baseman, whiffed on the 67.3-mph model for strike three.

From here, there is a credible argument that Sánchez’s encore in Washington has long run its course. Erick Fedde could be activated off the injured list soon. Cory Abbott, the leading candidate to be replaced by Fedde, is 26 and could in theory log innings for the Nationals beyond this year. Then top prospect Cade Cavalli is waiting in the wings, having struck out 11 in his most recent appearance for the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings.

But Thursday wasn’t the night for logic or credible arguments. They haven’t come for Sánchez quite yet.

What’s next for Fedde? After he completed four innings of a rehab start Wednesday night, Manager Dave Martinez is hoping for a Tuesday return for Fedde, who has been sidelined since late June with a left oblique strain. That would be against the Seattle Mariners and in Abbott’s spot. But how Fedde is integrated is to be determined.

The most conventional option is to swap Fedde in for Abbott, who could become a long reliever or keep starting in the minors. But Washington might consider a six-man rotation, a move that would specifically help limit Josiah Gray’s innings down the stretch. Martinez has often talked about being careful with Gray, who is 24 and in the home stretch of his first full season in the majors.

Gray, scheduled to start Saturday, enters the weekend at 118⅓ innings. His career high was 130 across three levels of the minors in 2019. On Thursday, Martinez started to detail a season cap for Gray and stopped himself. He then only revealed that Gray is getting close to the Nationals’ optimal number.

Why was Yadiel Hernandez subbed out for Call in the seventh? Hernandez had a cramp in his left camp and will be reevaluated Friday. After he exited, Call logged a key single in the eighth and gave the Washington its ideal defense — Call in left, Victor Robles in center, Lane Thomas in right — for the ninth.

How did Juan Soto welcome the Nationals to his new park? With all sorts of reunions happening — Soto and Bell with the Nationals, CJ Abrams and Luke Voit with San Diego — Soto was quiet at the plate, going 0 for 3 with a walk. The most notable of those at-bats came in the seventh, when Victor Arano struck him out with a letter-high, 96-mph fastball to strand the bases loaded.

“It was a little bit trying,” Martinez said of watching Soto in a big spot as an opposing manager. “I was sweating a little bit.”