By Sam Bush
Anibal Sanchez is the Nats fourth starter, and he held the St. Louis Cardinals without a hit until Jose Martinez singled with two outs in the eighth inning of Washington’s 2-0 win in game 1 of the NLCS.
Sanchez’s game was already the ninth this postseason in which a starter had lasted at least seven innings. That matched the total for the entire 2018 postseason.
“When you’ve got incredible pitchers out on the mound — Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole and those guys — if you have an ability like that, you want to get those guys out there as much as you can,” said the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright, who worked seven and two-thirds innings in his division series start. “When you’re just looking at one month to live forever, you’re talking about every game as a must-win. That’s kind of how teams are approaching it, and they’re putting their best athletes on the field.”
The Nationals have already used Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in relief this postseason, as the Red Sox did with all five of their starters on their championship run last October. That can be risky for the long-term — most of those Boston starters fell apart this season — but in the moment, it is probably the smart play, with plenty of historical support.
Using starters as relievers is nothing new in the postseason. Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove and Warren Spahn did it long before baseball added layers of playoffs before the World Series, and many modern starters have done it, from Verlander to Noah Syndergaard to Cole Hamels.
The strategy can backfire — as it did with the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in the division series finale against Washington on Wednesday — but the possibility of seeing the best pitchers more often adds extra sizzle to October.
“In the five-game series, you’ve got to get creative and you’ve got to take the ball at every single chance you can get,” Scherzer said. “In the seven-game series, the way you’re set up, this is more like the regular season.”
The Nationals and the Cardinals both plan to use four starters in this series, as most teams do in the best-of-seven format. For Washington, that means three pitchers in Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin whose combined salaries total $525 million — and Sanchez, who signed last December for two years and $19 million.
Sanchez, 35, has been in the majors since 2006, when he threw a no-hitter as a rookie for the Marlins. Friday’s effort was not even the first time he had allowed no hits when starting an L.C.S. opener: he also did it in 2013, for Detroit in Boston, but he lasted only six innings. Sanchez threw 116 pitches that night and the Tigers’ bullpen lost the no-hitter in the ninth.
This time, Sanchez nearly took care of things on his own, baffling the Cardinals with an array of off-speed pitches — including one type of changeup his teammates call “the Butterfly” — and a fastball that rarely tops 91 miles an hour. When first baseman Ryan Zimmerman made a diving catch on a liner to start the eighth, Sanchez expected to finish the gem.
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