ST. LOUIS — It was five years and 364 days ago that Anibal Sanchez sat in a dugout on a crisp October night, one day after dominating his opponent, and watched Max Scherzer do the very same thing. The two were teammates in a devastating Detroit Tigers starting rotation back in 2013, facing the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, and they became the first duo in postseason history with back-to-back starts of at least five no-hit innings against the same team.
On Saturday, with the afternoon shadows creeping over Busch Stadium, Sanchez watched as Scherzer did it again — taking the ball a day later, following in his footsteps, and achieving history once more, this time wearing a Washington Nationals uniform.
“I’ve always said that teams can create what is essentially a domino effect — if one guy’s going well, the other guy can come in and do well simply because he’s motivated to do the same thing,” Sanchez said in Spanish. “It’s a competitive thing.”
Less than 24 hours after Sanchez held the St. Louis Cardinals hitless through 7⅔ innings, Scherzer carried a no-hitter through six Saturday, leading the Nationals to a 3-1 victory and giving them a commanding 2-0 lead in this National League Championship Series. The Cardinals have combined for four hits in the 18 innings that have comprised this series, the fewest for any team in a two-game span within the postseason, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau.
“They controlled the tempo of the game very well and they had a lot of poise out there,” said Stephen Strasburg, who will start Monday’s Game 3 in Washington, the first of as many as three consecutive games there. “It just seemed like they were just playing catch out there.”
Sanchez kept the Cardinals off balance by effectively mixing a variety of pitches — four-seam fastballs, two-seamers, cutters and changeups — and generating a lot of soft contact. Scherzer masterfully played his changeup off his fastball and generated 19 swing-and-misses. Through six innings, he issued only two walks and struck out 10 — but then Paul Goldschmidt led off the bottom of the seventh with a 108.1-mph line drive to left field.
Juan Soto, a 20-year-old in his second big league season, thought briefly about diving for it, but chose to stay back, playing the ball on a short hop after it landed only a few feet in front of him. The batted ball carried an expected batting average of .740, and Soto was worried that a diving attempt could put what was at that point the tying run in scoring position.
“We’re in the playoffs,” Soto said in Spanish. “Any error can hurt you.”
Scherzer came back to strike out Marcell Ozuna, then got Yadier Molina to bounce into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play. He was removed after 101 pitches, then watched Sean Doolittle, Patrick Corbin and Daniel Hudson — back after attending the birth of his daughter — record the final six outs.
Scherzer was back home in St. Louis, a topic he has shown no interest in discussing.
He was, like Sanchez, on the verge of joining Don Larsen and Roy Halladay as the only men to ever throw a postseason no-hitter — and it was the furthest thing from his mind.
“I’m just in the moment,” Scherzer said. “I’m not trying to do anything great.”
Scherzer, Strasburg, Sanchez and Corbin have combined for a 1.81 ERA in their starts this postseason, striking out 64 and walking 17 in 49⅔ innings. They have the Nationals, a franchise that had never gotten out of the first round of the postseason before this month, on the verge of the World Series. Road teams that take 2-0 series leads in a best-of-seven series have advanced 22 out of 25 times.
That 2013 Tigers team, however, had a different story. Sanchez carried them to a 1-0 victory in Game 1, but the Red Sox recovered from a four-run deficit after Scherzer departed in Game 2, then won the series in six.
Baseball history is littered with similar examples.
“It’s kind of nice going back up 2-0 in the series, but those guys are really good over there,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “The series is far from over.”