“By no means are we thinking we’re sitting pretty,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.
Fine. Forgive those of us who do.
Here’s the grocery list of items that worked against the Nats on Friday: Daniel Hudson, their most-of-the-time closer, was in Arizona, placed on the paternity list after the birth of his third child earlier Friday — leaving a dangerous hole in the back end of Washington’s bullpen, if only for a day. Kurt Suzuki, their most-of-the-time starting catcher, was still being monitored after he suffered a head injury when he was hit by a pitch in Game 5 of the division series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Victor Robles, their starting center fielder, sat for a fourth straight game with a hamstring issue, forcing Michael A. Taylor into the lineup.
And Sánchez, what amounts to the “weak link” of the rotation, was on the mound. He made himself into a strength. He didn’t allow a hit until his 103rd pitch, when there were two outs in the eighth and pinch hitter Jose Martinez lined a clean single to center. He had people buzzing about Don Larsen and Roy Halladay even as the Nats clung to a narrow lead. His final line: 7⅔ innings pitched, one hit, no runs, one walk, five strikeouts and two hit batters.
Put him behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin — all spent after the Dodgers series. That’s just fine.
“I think the rotation that I’m in right now is really special,” Sánchez said. “. . . Every time I get the ball, I want to be competitive for those guys.”
These are long series, and none has gone seven games without someone being down 0-1. But think of the Cardinals’ task at the moment: They must win four of the next six games, and four of those games will be started by either Scherzer or Strasburg. If the Cardinals could beat each of those guys once, which is completely doable, then to win the series they also would have to take care of games started by Corbin, the dangerous lefty, and Sánchez, who just plowed through them.
Add some more ingredients: Hudson will be back for Saturday’s Game 2, and they survived without having to use their suspect relievers, who are many, because Sánchez went so deep and Sean Doolittle got the final four outs without incident.
What’s more: The out-of-the-box thinking of the wild-card game and the division series — in which Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin all made relief appearances — has now been placed squarely back in the box. A five-game series has two off days in seven days. A seven-game series has two off days in nine days. Welcome back to a normal rotation — the Nats’ strength since, it seems, the beginning of time.
“Starting pitching has been our backbone,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “That’s been our bread and butter.”
Here’s the knife. Slather it on and figure out what’s ahead. Scherzer will start Game 2 (on full rest), Strasburg will start Game 3 (on full rest), Scherzer would start a Game 6 (on full rest) and Strasburg would be teed up for a Game 7 — on six days’ rest. That doesn’t even account for Corbin and Sánchez — with one run allowed in 12⅓ postseason innings — in Games 4 and 5.
Even if 23 of the 33 teams that have opened a best-of-seven NLCS have gone on to win it, the Nats are guaranteed nothing. But sit around a table in West Palm Beach, Fla., in February and map out a scenario that says, “You’re up a game in the NLCS, and you have Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg four times in the remaining six games, and neither has to go on short rest.” Ownership, the front office, the coaching staff, the players, the cook and the janitors — they would all take it.
And because Sánchez toyed with the Cardinals, the series is tilted in their favor. Their strength is still to come. Not that they will allow that.
“At no point do we think any of these games are going to be easy,” Zimmerman said.
In a way, given the Nats’ recent come-from-behind October stresses, Friday kind of was. What amounted for Cardinals’ “rallies”: a one-out walk to Kolten Wong in the fourth; a hit batsman, pinch hitter Randy Arozarena, with one out in the sixth; and another hit batsman, Yadier Molina with an 0-2, 66-mph floater, in the seventh. In an era defined by velocity, this was artistry, lousy contact that produced lazy flyballs. Look for the sensational defensive play that preserved the bid? For seven innings, there really isn’t one, unless you count Anthony Rendon charging Matt Carpenter’s shift-beating bunt in the fifth. Stressful? Eh, it was kind of routine.
And then the 35-year-old first baseman — channeling Ryan Zimmerman circa 2009, when he played Gold Glove-caliber third base — dove to his right, his body parallel to the ground, to snare Tommy Edman’s scorched liner to open the eighth. Put an asterisk near that one.
This was all Sánchez, doing what he does at the highest level.
“His ability to change speeds, it’s probably one of the best in the game,” said Scherzer, a teammate for two years in Detroit before Sánchez rejoined him in Washington this season. “The way he can change speeds — even on his change-up.”
And Scherzer laughed. So much of this remarkable rotation is built on power. The fastballs of Scherzer and Strasburg, in so many ways, set the tone for this team because everything else plays off them — Scherzer’s four-pitch arsenal, Strasburg’s disappearing change-up, etc. Corbin might not be as viscerally overpowering, but he has a wipeout slider. Thus, here are the NL ranks of Strasburg, Scherzer and Corbin in strikeouts this season: second, third and fourth, respectively.
Scherzer, though, believes that any pitcher would do well to watch Sánchez. Yeah, so what if that fastball tops out at about 91 mph? Get back to what he can do with that change when he slows it, as Scherzer said, “all the way down.”
“We call it the butterfly,” Scherzer said. “He can throw a butterfly in there, and . . . just every hitter waves at it. That’s what makes him such a treat to watch. I really feel like every pitcher can learn from him because of the way he puts his pitches together and the way he can change speeds.”
Those are the words of the Game 2 starter — who has won three Cy Youngs — about the Game 1 starter, who any opponent would have to consider vulnerable when stacked up against the rest. And yet he completely mastered the Cardinals.
The last time the St. Louis offense was seen — which would be Wednesday in a Game 5 victory over Atlanta — it was scoring 10 runs in the first inning. On Friday, there were innings they didn’t see 10 pitches.
“Every pitch meant something,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “We were setting up for something else.”
What they’re set up for now is the rest of the series. Aníbal Sánchez fit himself in with the strength of this team. But the real strength is still to come.
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