ST. LOUIS — Among the perfect ways for the Washington Nationals to open their first appearance in the National League Championship Series, if you’re holding a ticket saying, “Aníbal Sánchez takes no-hitter into the eighth,” please report to the window to collect your winnings. And bring a dump truck.

Sánchez was the star of a 2-0 Game 1 victory for the Nats over the St. Louis Cardinals at sold-out Busch Stadium, where the locals pride themselves on teaching folks about baseball – and instead were schooled themselves. He didn’t allow a hit until his 103rd pitch, when there were two outs in the eighth. He had people buzzing about Don Larsen and Roy Halladay even as the Nats clung to a narrow lead.

His final line: 7 2/3 innings pitched, one hit, no runs, one walk, five strikeouts and two hit batters. Bow down to him. He isn’t an afterthought, but a weapon and a winner, and the Nats lead the series because of him.

Now, step back from Sánchez’s start, and consider what it means. The Nationals can hand the ball to Max Scherzer in Saturday afternoon’s Game 2 in position to completely take control of the series. In fact, given what they faced Friday, they might already be.

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 sustained a head injury when he was hit by a pitch in Game 5 of the Dodgers series. Victor Robles, their starting center fielder, sat for a fourth straight game with a hamstring issue.

And Sánchez, who Manager Dave Martinez keeps touting as one of the Nats’ “Big Four” but in reality remains well outside the “Big Three,” was on the mound. Sánchez had thrown five innings in the previous 15 days. He’s the guy who, in the previous 48 hours, you might have heard that the Nationals were “forced to turn to” because Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin had all been exhausted in the division series victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.


Sánchez, the perceived weakness, made himself a strength. 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 35-year-old first baseman Ryan Zimmerman – channeling Ryan Zimmerman, 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 the Nationals’ strength, their starting rotation, is built on power. The fastballs of Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, in so many ways, set the tone for this team, because everything else plays off of them – Scherzer’s slider, Strasburg’s change-up, etc. Patrick 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 consider the weak link of the Nats’ rotation. 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. Friday, Sánchez set down the first three Cardinals hitters on 17 pitches – and that amounted to a struggle. His pitch counts in the ensuing four innings: seven, 10, 11, 11.

These are long series, and none has ever 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 Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg. If the Cardinals could beat each of those guys once, which is completely doable, then to win the series they would also have to take care of games started by Patrick Corbin and Sánchez, who just plowed through them.

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 regular rotation.

“This is more like the regular season,” Scherzer said. “You can’t be coming out of the pen in the same form or fashion unless you’re not going to be making your start.”

Which means 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.

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, Florida, 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’d all take it.

They’d take an Aníbal Sánchez no-hit bid into the eighth. They’d take the final four outs from Sean Doolittle on a night when Hudson wasn’t even in town. And they’d take a lead that is only one game, but sets up the rest of the series in perfect order for the Nats

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