Game 1 of the NLCS was very nearly one grand improbability. That Aníbal Sánchez could throw a no-hitter 13 years after he’d first done so. That he could be the one to pull off a no-hitter in a Nationals rotation that more prominently features the names Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin. That Ryan Zimmerman, the franchise’s veteran icon, could be the one to make the game-saving catch. That a 2019 club could even trust a postseason starter to go deep with a slim lead to threaten a no-hitter in the first place. That St. Louis could be no-hit at home at all, which hadn’t occurred in more than a century.
But, of course, it wasn’t so: Sánchez finally allowed a single with two outs in the eighth. Instead of the third no-hitter in postseason history, it was simply an excellent performance, a 2-0 win for the Nationals in a crucial Game 1.
As he typically is at his best, Sánchez was dominant without being particularly flashy. The 35-year-old topped out at 93 mph and recorded just five strikeouts—with a total of only 10 whiffs on 103 pitches—but he was ruthlessly effective all the same. As usual, the key was not so much in the stuff itself as it was in how it was used. He mixed in just about every piece of his deep arsenal (four-seamer, splitter, sinker, cutter, change-up and a few curves, too) and St. Louis was left off-balance all evening.
Even without the official glory of a no-hitter, this was still, in its own way, improbable. A few years ago, it would have seemed ridiculous to dream of this. Sánchez’s career arc stretches from 2006—when he threw that first no-hitter as a promising rookie—to 2013—when, for the first and only time, he received votes for Cy Young—to 2017—when he imploded to such a degree that it seemed reasonable to wonder if he’d ever return to form—to 2019—when he snapped back with a full year of health and success. And now that landed him here, within a few outs of a no-hitter in the NLCS.
It is not the first time that Sánchez has taken a no-hit threat deep into Game 1 of a postseason series. The first was in 2013, for the Tigers, with Game 2 started by teammate Max Scherzer in a series that they ultimately lost in six games to the Red Sox. But the pair will have a redo here—Scherzer will start Saturday’s Game 2 for the Nationals, setting up the same one-two punch as six years ago, separated by team and time and career evolution, coming full-circle.
Sánchez was the clear hero of an otherwise quiet night for the Nationals. There was also Howie Kendrick, hero of Game 5 of the NLDS, who scored the first run and drove in the second, and Yan Gomes, forced to start at catcher after Kurt Suzuki was struck by a pitch in Game 5, and beyond that, an awful lot of runners stranded in a game that could have easily been vexing for the team in another pitcher’s hands. But with Sánchez—somewhat improbably—that was all that was needed.