'Tonight was vintage Anibal': How the overlooked Nationals starter flipped the NLCS

ST. LOUIS -- They traveled as slow as 66 mph and no faster than 93. Some cut, some ran, some fluttered, and somehow, hardly any of them came back with any authority. Anibal Sanchez -- the forgotten member of a renowned rotation, a statistical marvel at this stage of his career -- baffled the St. Louis Cardinals on a night when it seemed as if the Washington Nationals were destined for defeat.

On the road, with the closer unavailable, with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin all exhausted from the previous series, Sanchez came within four outs of joining Don Larsen and Roy Halladay as the only men to throw a postseason no-hitter. Instead, he carried the Nationals to what felt like a momentum-shifting 2-0 victory on Friday in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium.

"Tonight was vintage Anibal," longtime Nationals corner infielder Ryan Zimmerman said. "I've seen him do that for almost 15 years."

All the ingredients for a no-hitter appeared to be in place. The fastball command was as good as it had been all year, the off-speed pitches were working off it effectively, the outs were recorded efficiently. The only missing component for much of the game was that one highlight-reel catch, the type that tends to manifest itself on nights such as this.

But leading off the bottom of the eighth, it happened. Zimmerman, a strong defensive third baseman who shifted to first base when his shoulder gave him trouble, dove full-extension to his right to snag an 88 mph line drive off the bat of Tommy Edman and preserve Sanchez's chance at the first postseason no-hitter on the road. Sanchez thought back to his last no-hitter, on Sept. 6, 2006, as a 22-year-old rookie for the then-Florida Marlins. That night, Josh Willingham made a diving catch in left field to steal a hit in the fourth inning.

"Always, behind a no-hitter, a good play has to happen," Sanchez said. "And so I said, 'OK. I had it.'"

Sanchez, now 35, had already become the first pitcher to produce postseason hitless efforts of six-plus innings on more than one occasion, a feat he pulled off despite six walks in Game 1 of the 2013 American League Championship Series. With that catch, he needed five more outs, and he would achieve the second-longest personal gap between no-hitters, behind only that of Randy Johnson.

The next batter, Paul DeJong, hit a harmless fly ball on a first-pitch sinker that traveled 90 mph. After that came pinch hitter Jose Martinez, a fellow Venezuelan whom Sanchez called "one of the top hitters." Nationals manager Dave Martinez didn't move. The temperature had dropped below 40 degrees, but the manager didn't want to put anything over the thin sweatshirt he wore at the start of the game. He didn't want to be the jinx.

"I was freezing my butt off," the skipper said.

Sanchez threw a first-pitch strike, as he did to 20 of the 27 batters he faced, but Jose Martinez worked the count full. Sanchez's 103rd offering of the night was an 82 mph changeup near the middle of the platee. Martinez lined it into center field for a base hit, and Sanchez's night was over. Sanchez applauded Martinez as he approached the dugout, then watched Sean Doolittle secure the final four outs in place of Daniel Hudson, who was not with the team because of the birth of his daughter.

"It was just masterful," Nationals catcher Yan Gomes, who started behind the plate because Kurt Suzuki was working his way back from a concussion, said of Sanchez's performance. "He was out there hitting every spot and doing whatever he wanted."

Through eight innings, the Cardinals hit only one ball that traveled 95-plus mph. It was the first time that had happened since Sept. 25, 2016. Previously, Sanchez relied heavily on his two changeups while keeping the Los Angeles Dodgers in check in Game 3 of the NL Division Series, but Sanchez attacked the Cardinals differently. He recorded 13 outs on fastballs, more than he had all season. He mixed a heavy dose of four-seamers, two-seamers, cutters and low-80s changeups. But he also mixed in his mid-70s curve and that patented circle change that sometimes travels in the 60 mph range and is widely known as "the butterfly."

"We've hit some guys before who are off-speed-heavy," Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter said, "but tonight, if you watched the game, the guy just never threw anything over the middle of the plate."

Sanchez's career began with Tommy John surgery as a teenager. A promising rookie season in 2006 was followed by surgery to repair a torn labrum in 2007. He regained his form after nearly two years of rehab, signed an $80 million contract with the Tigers and pitched effectively -- sometimes brilliantly -- in rotations that featured Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price.

From 2016 to 2017, Sanchez struggled through a 6.09 ERA in 258⅔ innings. He was demoted to the bullpen, pitched in long relief and accepted an assignment to the minor leagues. In the spring of 2018, the Minnesota Twins released him from his contract in spring training, and Sanchez signed a minor league deal with the Atlanta Braves. There, he paired with Suzuki, who helped him emphasize his cutter and reconfigure the way he sequenced. He emerged again as a dominant figure.

Zimmerman faced Sanchez often when the two competed against each other in the NL East.

"Nobody's gonna throw 94, 95 their entire career," Zimmerman said. "Not many guys can do that. So you have to learn how to pitch. He throws cutters now, he throws changeups to both righties and lefties, he can add and subtract on pretty much all of his pitches. Honestly, there's not very many of those guys left around. Everybody just throws high heaters and breaking balls out of the zone and tries to strike people out. Sometimes I think that works to his advantage."

Sanchez admitted to feeling anxious before he took the mound. He knew he needed to pitch deep into the game, knew he needed to provide a boost after Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin combined for 36 innings pitched between the NL wild-card game and the five-game NLDS.

"I just tried to keep focused on every pitch that I'm going to throw," Sanchez said. "I don't want to miss any pitch in the middle of the zone against those guys."

Sanchez retired the first 10 hitters he faced and allowed only four baserunners -- one on a hit, one on a walk and two via hit by pitch. Dave Martinez has said at every turn that the Nationals boast four elite starting pitchers, not three. He thought Sanchez, 11-8 with a 3.85 ERA this season, never quite got his due.

Perhaps now he might.

"Everybody talks about Stras, Scherzer, Corbin," Martinez said. "Anibal -- he's a big part of why we're here, too."