The best way to avoid a questionable bullpen is for a starter to pitch deep into the game. Aníbal Sánchez made for an unlikely candidate to do so, as he was the worst starting pitcher in baseball this season the third time through the batting order. But unlikely or not, Sánchez took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, was rarely in any trouble, and gave the Nationals exactly what they needed in the first game of the NLCS. Sean Doolittle got the final four outs of the game and Washington jumped out to an early series lead before its big three of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin could even take the mound.
Sánchez is known for mixing his pitches, and he played to the Cardinals scouting report, throwing fewer of the four-seam fastballs the Cardinals like and opting for a sinker he doesn’t use with regularity. On the season, Sánchez threw his sinker to right-handed hitters just 13% of the time, but through four innings he tripled that percentage. As the game wore on, he featured his fastball less as its velocity diminished, but the Cardinals couldn’t take advantage. And even when they got close, they were ultimately stymied. Ryan Zimmerman made what might have been a no-hitter saving play in the eighth inning on a hard-hit ball by Tommy Edman.
Sometimes it’s just not your night. Two batters later, Sánchez’s countryman, José Martínez (H/T Enrique Rojas), hit a solid single; with the no-hitter over, Sean Doolittle came in to get the final out of the eighth.
After the game, when asked whether the sinker was part of the game plan, Sánchez said “For me, I just want to be out of the power zone of those guys. Every mistake — if you make a mistake against those guys they’re pretty strong, they can change the score in one swing. I just tried to keep the ball on the corners, my two-seamer was working really good today and we used it a lot.”
Catcher Yan Gomes agreed, saying, “His two-seamer, he was putting it wherever he wanted and we were getting early outs with it. When that starts happening, you kind of start seeing a little bit of guys trying to over-swing, trying to do a little bit more at the plate. And you just keep attacking that zone where, before they start making adjustments and we don’t have to.”
The Nationals scored their first run in the second inning, when a leadoff double on a slider by Howie Kendrick presented some trouble for Miles Mikolas. But he almost worked his way out of it with a groundout by Zimmerman and a Michael A. Taylor strikeout. Instead, Yan Gomes hit a two-out double — on another slider — and Kendrick scored.
In the fifth, a couple of groundball singles past Matt Carpenter eventually brought up Anthony Rendon, who, after a mound visit, walked on four pitches. That brought lefty Juan Soto to the plate with the bases loaded. It looked like the Nationals might break the game open. Génesis Cabrera was warming, though Soto has a 120 wRC+ against lefties (compared to a 153 versus right-handers). Earlier this evening, Martinez told the story of the first time he ever saw Soto hit in a game back in the spring of 2018:
And he gets in, first at-bat he has is against a left-handed pitcher, he goes up there, guy throws him a slider in the dirt, he missed it by a mile. I thought, okay, we got a 19-year-old kid. All right. So he stepped out of the box, shook his head a little bit, gets back in the box, next pitch, guy throws him the same pitch and he just looks at it and takes it and looks down and just goes [Indicating]. And I’m thinking to myself, huh. Next pitch, same pitch, got it up a little bit, and he hit a rocket off the left centerfield wall. And I thought, whoa, that’s pretty impressive that a kid could just step back and say, ‘Okay, I just saw one, I swung.’
Mike Shildt opted to leave Mikolas in; he threw four straight curves and on the fourth, a pitch over the heart of the plate, Soto hit a grounder to the left side to get Mikolas out of the inning.
The game featured three intentional walks by the Cardinals, with Shildt lamenting a fourth he didn’t issue that might have prevented a run in the second inning. The first came in the sixth inning. Mikolas gave up a one-out double to Zimmerman, but after Taylor struck out, Shildt gave Yan Gomes a free pass. I asked Shildt before the game about intentional walks and if anything had changed for him after we saw several backfire in both of the NL Division Series. This is what he said:
No, it hasn’t changed. Listen, we have had a lot of success doing it, it gets more magnified when it doesn’t work, right? But you do it to create the best matchup you think you have. That matchup doesn’t guarantee success. But this — I heard Skip Bertman say this years ago and it is so true, this is a game of “chances are” propositions.
So sometimes they don’t work, but you can’t, you can’t — at least from our standpoint — I’m not going to not do something for fear of like, worrying about how that’s perceived or looks. We’re going to manage and we’re going to put the guys in the best position available to have success, knowing there’s a… knowing you’re putting another guy on base and creating potentially some risk, but sometimes you do it and you’re actually creating an advantage for you in a double play situation or, like you say, you got a better matchup.
There’s always a reason for doing it, you don’t take it lightly, but it’s interesting and I think you’re alluding to the fact that we walked [Brian] McCann to get to [Dansby] Swanson. Do it again next year — of course McCann retired — but just didn’t work. But we also did it about four or five times, I don’t count them, earlier in that series that worked out wonderfully. So we’ll do it when it’s appropriate and know there’s always a risk either way, right, there’s a risk of pitching to the guy and there’s a risk of putting a guy on and pitching to the next guy, we’re just trying to take our best shot and give us the best chance to compete.
Given that the pitcher was up to bat next, and the lack of confidence in the bullpen coupled with how well Sánchez was pitching, there was a very good chance of the pitcher hitting, which greatly improves the reasoning behind the intentional pass. Putting Gomes on added less than a percent to the Nationals’ chances of winning and given the drop in hitter quality, the decision was sound. Good process. And good result, as Sánchez hit a ground ball out and the Cardinals got out of the inning. That was the end of a solid outing for Mikolas, who struck out seven against two walks (one intentional) and gave up just the one run.
The second intentional walk was part of the Nationals’ second run of the game, but likely didn’t factor into the scoring as Andrew Miller struck out Juan Soto before John Brebbia allowed an RBI single to Howie Kendrick that scored Adam Eaton, who had been on third before the intentional walk was even issued.
The third intentional walk, this one by Carlos Martinez in the ninth, was also not a factor. The factor, of course, was Sánchez, who induced weak contact over and over again. In a bit of good fortune, Daniel Hudson’s absence, due to the birth of his child, did not play a role in the game. Tomorrow, Max Scherzer faces off against Adam Wainwright. The Cardinals will need their offense to come alive or risk going down 0-2 before heading to Washington for three games.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.