CHICAGO — Aníbal Sánchez got to sleep Thursday, at least a lot more than his teammates, and he proceeded to make the Chicago Cubs look like the club running on nothing but fumes. And the rest of the Washington Nationals, the ones who should have been dragging after flying in from Pittsburgh in the dead of night, followed Sánchez’s lead.
Sánchez came to Chicago a day earlier to sidestep the travel fatigue. Then he turned in his best start of the season Friday afternoon, giving up just one hit and two runs (one earned) in 8⅓ innings, pacing the Nationals to a 9-3 win at Wrigley Field. Sánchez was complemented by an offense that bullied Chicago with 14 hits. He even added two singles and an RBI to that effort. This could have been penciled in as a loss when the schedule was released last summer. But the Nationals bucked that logic, convincingly, winning for the 10th time in 12 games to improve to a season-best 14 games over .500 at 71-57.
“It was amazing. He picked us up,” Manager Dave Martinez said of Sánchez. “We come in here after a late night and have a ‘show-and-go’ game, and he held them down to basically nothing.”
It is, after all, hard to win baseball games against any team in any city at any point of the year. Logistics only made the Nationals’ task tougher Friday. They played the night before in Pittsburgh, starting at 7:15 p.m. Eastern time, and didn’t get to their Chicago hotel until after 1 a.m. Central time. Players looked dazed in the clubhouse a few hours before first pitch. Victor Robles was trying to sleep at his locker, his head tucked behind a rack of shirts, his headphones on, until a reporter asked to speak with him.
After the Nationals beat the Pirates, 7-1, Martinez leaned back in his PNC Park office and joked with reporters: “Can you play tomorrow? . . . Can you play tomorrow? . . . Who can hit around here?” Then Martinez sat in another office, in another time zone, and put the same names in the same order on his lineup card.
“I talked to everybody last night and this morning, and they all were ready to go,” Martinez said of repeating his lineup despite the tight turnaround. “These guys understand what we are playing for.”
What the Nationals are playing for, here at Wrigley and in the weeks that will follow, is separation atop the National League wild-card standings. They entered this series with a 1½ -game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals. But the Cubs led the Cardinals by only a half game in the NL Central, making them one of many teams chasing Washington.
And Sánchez used all seven different pitches to hold them back. He leaned on his four-seam fastball, cutter and change-up. He mixed in a 69-mph curveball for a strikeout in the fifth. The Nationals took the lead once Adam Eaton roped Jon Lester’s 11th pitch into the right field seats. Eaton had seven home runs in his first 505 plate appearances of the season. He now had hit five in his next 41, all in the past nine games, and had 10 extra-base hits in that stretch.
From there, for the rest of the afternoon, Sánchez dominated while the Nationals manufactured runs.
“With so many pitches, he can do so many different things and attack you so many different ways,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki, who has caught every one of Sánchez’s starts this season. “When he can get deep in a game like that, he can just start throwing the kitchen sink.”
Washington smacked four consecutive one-out singles off Lester in the fourth. Then Lester walked Robles with two outs to bring up Sánchez, a light-hitting pitcher, the definition of a sure out. That was the thought, at least, when the lefty nibbled around the strike zone to give Robles a free pass.
Yet Sánchez didn’t roll over. He noticed third baseman Kris Bryant playing back before Lester threw him a 1-1 fastball down the middle. So Sánchez squared to bunt, deciding to do so on his own, and tapped the ball down the third base line. He sprinted toward first to beat a throw that never came. The ball rolled and rolled and stopped an inch inside the white chalk, halfway between third and home, a portrait of a perfect bunt. Suzuki scored. Sánchez had his first RBI since 2014. He later finished with his first two-hit game since 2006.
“I just wanted it to stay fair,” Sánchez said of the bunt. “Because I didn’t want to go back to the plate.”
Sánchez retired 14 consecutive batters between the fourth and the ninth, stretching from the only hit off him to the only walk he issued. He only exited after Anthony Rendon’s throwing error brought in the Cubs’ first run. Matt Grace entered and allowed two more before finishing it off. Sánchez was 0-6 with a 5.10 ERA when he went to the injured list in mid-May. He is 8-0 since and has lowered his season ERA to 3.81.
The Nationals had added three more runs in the fifth, knocking Lester out in the process, creating wide separation when Robles blooped a two-run double to right. Soto added a solo homer, his 29th of the year, in the seventh and reached base four times. Kendrick tacked on an RBI double in the ninth. Washington has won in many ways these past few weeks — in blowouts, in pitching duels, in spite of themselves — yet taking a second game in 16 hours, after switching cities in between, was not one of them. But then came Sánchez, and his right arm, and his bat, and a team that couldn’t touch him from beginning to two outs from the end.
It’s often mentioned that hitting is contagious. Maybe a good night’s rest is, too.