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ST. LOUIS — That changeup, the very leisurely one, is “La Mariposa.” “The Butterfly.” It travels from Aníbal Sánchez’s hand to, on this Friday night in the National League Championship Series, Yan Gomes’ mitt with the ardor of a child banished to his room.
This is the pitch that garners the love, for it is different. In a high-fastball, bounced breaking-ball world, Sánchez’s happily flitting changeup is a pitcher on the far end of his imagination while on the leading edge of his courage.
It shuffles down the hallway, looks back over its shoulder one final time, sleeve-wipes a tear from its eye, and in resignation heaves itself the last 20 feet, setting up the next two or three or four pitches.
This is Aníbal Sánchez at his most artful, at 35 years old, holding down a place in the Washington Nationals’ rotation somewhere behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, himself an offspeed, thinking man’s presence in a fastball game. In Game 1 of the NLCS, his game because his turn and none of theirs came up, Sánchez did not allow a hit to the St. Louis Cardinals until there were two out in the eighth inning. That close to throwing the third no-hitter in postseason history, Sánchez threw the hard changeup to pinch-hitter José Martinez, the 82-mph one, on a 3-and-2 count, and Martinez lined a single to center field.
The Cardinals managed just that one single and three other baserunners -- Sánchez walked a batter and hit two others. The Nationals rode two-out, run-scoring hits from Gomes and Howie Kendrick for a 2-0 victory, and in a series many seem to believe will decide who will kick themselves harder -- the Los Angeles Dodgers or Atlanta Braves -- the Nationals took over early home-field advantage.
This, primarily, was due to Sánchez, the overlooked fourth starter whose number came up in time to measure the Cardinals, who’d finished the Braves with 13 runs on Wednesday, on a brisk and unforgiving midwest evening. He was artful. He pitched to the end of the Cardinals’ bats. He pitched to the handles of their bats. He pitched to a grain or two below the barrel one pitch, the next to a grain or two above it. He pitched to lazy fly balls to the outfield, to two-hoppers to the infield, to a silent Busch Stadium.
Sánchez struck out only five of 27 batters faced, but required only one standout play behind him, that being first baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s backhand stab of a line drive to start the eighth inning.
“And I said, ‘OK, always behind a no-hitter a good play has to happen,’” Sánchez said. “And I said, ‘OK, I had it.’”
A mere eight pitches later, he’d lost it, cleanly, when Martinez’s single landed a good 10 feet in front of center fielder Michael A. Taylor. He was replaced by reliever Sean Doolittle, who recorded the final four outs without incident. And the Nationals had their first win of this postseason -- of five -- in which neither Scherzer nor Strasburg, or both, had pitched.
“He’s just a different kind of pitcher,” said Zimmerman, who faced Sánchez 61 times when Sanchez was in Miami or Detroit or Atlanta. “I’ve seen him do that for 15 years, I guess. … He’s been a really good pitcher for a long time. From a guy who used to throw 94, 95, he’s adapted from there.”
At the end of his 14th season, in his second start of this postseason, Sánchez threw 103 pitches at 20 different velocities, from the 66-mph changeup that hit Yadi Molina in the back in the seventh inning to the 93-mph sinker Paul Goldschmidt fouled off in the first inning. He threw at least one pitch at every velocity from 82 mph to 93 mph. The 12 pitches he threw at 91 mph were the most at any one of the speeds. He threw seven different velocities a single time -- 66, 69, 70, 72, 75, 80 and 93.
Also, he threw two pitches in the 60’s, eight in the 70’s, 53 in the 80’s and 30 in the 90’s.
It’s what it looks like when a pitcher talks about changing speeds, unbalancing hitters, and finding soft spots and big swings. He, indeed, was the soft stuff out in front of the next three games, in which the Nationals will start Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin, in that order, and so a simple Game 1 victory, so distant from anything like a World Series berth, had the series tilt toward D.C.
“It just kind of shows the kind of athleticism he has on the mound,” said Gomes, who caught just four of Sánchez’s 30 regular-season starts. “To be able to slow it down that much and still throw it for a strike and then speed it back up, I don’t know of many guys who can do that. … I almost think that with the mariposa he can do it to anyone. He’s mixing a changeup from 80-something to 60 miles an hour.
“For an outing like today, it was just masterful. He was out there hitting every spot and doing whatever he wanted.”
In the clubhouse afterward, Sánchez shared a hug with a member of the Nationals staff. They growled at each other and then fluttered their fingers at eye level, as if lengthening their eyelashes, or perhaps shooing butterflies, an amusing greeting that celebrated a wonderful night. Sánchez had landed the first blow in a best-of-seven series that, perhaps, has barely broken a sweat. But it also is waiting to be taken. Waiting for a hero. For the Nationals, whose history in D.C. was without so much as a postseason series win until Wednesday night in Los Angeles, a pleasant outcome on the road and without any of its aces in the middle of October would not be insignificant.
These series do tend to zig and zag, find a path and then run off, settle and then run off again. That’s the beauty of them, the randomness of them, the way they catch your eye when the light hits them. So you send out Aníbal Sánchez into the biggest game in franchise history and what you get is butterflies. Lots of butterflies.
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