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Don’t look now, but the Washington Nationals’ starting pitching could be back

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Back-to-back strong starts offer hope as the the season nears the stretch run.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Aníbal Sánchez we saw at Nationals Park on Tuesday night is the Aníbal Sánchez the Washington Nationals have been looking for all season. In delivering five mostly brilliant innings in Tuesday night’s 5-3 win over Tampa Bay, Sánchez gave the Nats a second straight strong start from a starting pitcher. That’s a small sign of progress for a team with a history of great starting pitching, but it is a sign of hope as the season nears the home stretch.

Sánchez has been looking for command and consistency all season, getting clobbered in each of his first four starts before getting his first win of the season Aug, 23 against Miami. He looked like he had turned the corner in that start, allowing one run on five hits in seven innings. But he followed that up with a laborious, 3 13-inning start against Philadelphia.

The right-hander hadn’t taken a shutout into the fourth inning all season, but this time, he put scoreless innings on the board in the first five, more than in any prior start. Sanchez retired ten straight batters from the second through the fifth before tiring and losing a close call in the sixth. For the game, he allowed a season-low four hits with two walks.

“I finally have figured out my mechanics and how to make the hitter miss my fastball,” Sánchez told reporters on a postgame Zoom call.

Also encouraging from Sánchez was the six strikeouts, his most since July 27. His four-pitch punch-out of Michael Perez in the second inning ended a threat with men on second and third. From then through the fifth, he was the Sánchez the Nationals used to fear years ago, the Sánchez who one-hit the Cardinals for more than seven innings in the National League Championship Series.

“I think it’s because my fastball and my changeup come out the same, you know, those pitches come out exactly [the same] against the hitters,” Sánchez said. “Today, I’m able to throw my fastball and my changeup in the same arm motion, it helped me to keep those guys out of balance.”

With the Nats’ successfully playing small ball from the first inning on, Sánchez was stress free from the second until the sixth, when he gave up a leadoff single to Brandon Lowe and walked Randy Arozarena. Ji-Man Choi followed with a base hit to right, but Adam Eaton fired the ball home in time for a play on Lowe. Plate umpire Marty Foster ruled that Lowe had touched just ahead of Kurt Suzuki’s sweep tag. Replays showed how close the play was, but nothing to overturn the call.

Sánchez was charged with two more runs when Wander Suero allowed the two runners he inherited to score on Yoshi Tsutsugo’s double. That was the only hit Suero allowed, though, and Tanner Rainey and Sean Doolittle followed with a perfect inning each before Daniel Hudson allowed one hit in the ninth to secure the victory and his ninth save.

Sánchez’s effort came a day after Max Scherzer turned in what was arguably his strongest outing of the year. Back-to-back strong starts may not really be cause for celebration, but the four runs allowed in those starts are the fewest the Nats have given up over two games since back-to-back wins (including a shutout) July 29-30. For a team that has consistently hung its hat on starting pitching, that’s as encouraging a sign as any.

“It’s amazing what happens when our starting pitching goes out there and gives us five-plus, six innings, things change,” manager Davey Martinez said after the game.

Martinez is fortunate to have a day off Wednesday to map out his rotation moving forward and rest his bullpen, which has been a strength for most of the season. The Nationals have ridden strong starting pitching to the postseason many times, and those arms will be crucial if the Nats overcome the long odds to make it in this unpredictable 2020 campaign.