With the Nationals’ postseason demons exorcised, and the team now navigating uncharted playoff territory, it seemed only right that this anything-is-possible type of magic carried over into specific areas of the team to elevate certain players. Still, as Washington and St. Louis entered the bottom of the eighth, you’d be forgiven if you weren’t quite expecting Aníbal Sánchez, the Nats’ fourth starter, to have thrown seven hitless frames up until that point. The national broadcast was rather surprised and all three guys in the booth seemed rather incredulous when names like Don Larsen and Roy Halladay began to show up on graphics.
Yet there Sánchez was preparing to face Tommy Edman as the pitcher looked to inch closer towards becoming a baseball postseason legend. With a full count, the Nat missed his target on a 91 mph sinker that Edman immediately pounced on. The way the ball fired off the right fielder’s bat, it looked as though this would be a base hit at the minimum. Ryan Zimmerman, however, had other ideas. Throwing caution, and his 35-year-old body, to the wind, the first baseman launched himself to his right to make one of the top defensive plays of October.
The reaction of the broadcasters pretty much said it all: holy fucking shit. While it wasn’t quite Dewayne Wise robbing a home run in the bottom of the ninth, it was exactly the kind of play that pitchers often require from their fielders in these sorts of performances. If any ball had a chance to break Sánchez’s streak, it was that one, leading some to believe that Zimmerman’s miraculous play all but clinched the third no-hitter in MLB postseason history. This was something that even the pitcher himself started to think
“And I said, ‘OK, always behind a no-hitter, a good play has to happen,’” Sánchez told reporters. “I said, OK, I [have] it.”
Even as the jaws of a baseball-watching nation began to pick themselves off the floor, these thoughts were further confirmed when Sánchez needed just one pitch to get Paul DeJong out. Retiring that second Cardinal moved the pitcher into second for the longest no-hit bid in National League postseason history. Unfortunately, that’s where he’d remain for the evening as pinch hitter Jose Martinez smacked a splitter that went over the plate into center field to break up the bid. Nationals manager Dave Martinez then decided to pull the plug on the outing to allow Sean Doolittle to finish the job. As Sánchez walked off the field, he gave a tip of the cap to Martinez for breaking up his bid, and received an ovation from St. Louis crowd for what he had done.
It’s important to understand just how much of a shock this outing was for everyone watching from all sides. Here was a 35-year-old pitcher coming off of a pretty average season with a fastball that topped out at 91 mph making his way through a team that the baseball gods smile fondly upon in October with relative ease. Sure, Sánchez had been in a position like this before—he threw six hitless innings against the Red Sox in Game 1 of the 2013 ALCS—but that was six years ago, and with a team where the final seasons of his tenure had him looking pretty damn washed. Outside of the surprise star, there was also plenty surrounding him that put the Nationals in a rather precarious position. Closer Daniel Hudson was in Arizona to see the birth of his third child, starting catcher Kurt Suzuki was still recovering from taking a deflected pitch to the face, and starting center fielder Victor Robles was out with a hamstring injury. On top of that, Sánchez was working alongside an offense that had only scored two runs through seven innings, and stranded 13 runners on base. It’s likely for that reason that a couple of the players who spoke to reporters after the game were rather reserved in their self-congratulations.
“By no means are we thinking we’re sitting pretty,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.
The biggest question facing the Nationals this postseason was whether the pitchers not named Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg could keep the team afloat long enough before choking games away—something that I admittedly wasn’t too confident in them doing. But that was a narrative driven by expectations that have since been shattered. The Nats are in the NLCS, Doolittle didn’t continue the team’s bullpen woes by blowing the game, and the quiet understudy of Washington’s $95 million rotation nearly did something only two pitchers had ever done. With apologies to the rather subdued players, perhaps it’s time to reconsider those narratives and maybe start believing in this team.