Aníbal Sánchez felt good early in Spring Training, and the 38-year-old, 15-year veteran said he chalked it up to a year spent away from the game in 2021, after helping Washington win the World Series in 2019 and pitching for the club in 2020’s 60-game COVID season.
“I think everything is fresh, you know, the arm, if you remove a year,” Sánchez said when he spoke to reporters after his initial outing of the spring, “and especially because I wasn’t off because of an injury.”
“I was off because I decided to stay off,” he explained. “So that’s a good thing at the end. I’m just like building my arm right now to prepare for the season.
“It’s different [than] to build up with an injury.”
Sánchez continued to build up for his 16th major league season, but had a cervical nerve impingement in his neck shut him down before Opening Day, and he didn’t pick back up again for a while.
He finally started building for a return, but he was starting from scratch, and the Nats took a careful approach knowing he’d been away from the game for a year and needed to build up slowly.
But after four outings and 15 2⁄3 IP in the minors, skipper Davey Martinez told Sánchez this week he would be making his next start in the majors.
“He’s excited about it, he really is, and I’m excited for him,” Martinez told reporters, as quoted by MLB.com’s Jessica Camerato. “He put himself through a lot to get back.”
“He did everything he needed to do to get back, and I’m looking forward to getting him out there and watching him pitch again,” Martinez said. “He was a big part of ‘19 for us.”
As Sánchez rehabbed, Martinez talked with reporters about what their evaluators in the organization were looking to see, to let them know he ready to return to pitch in the big leagues.
“For Anibal, it’s all about controlling the strike zone, throwing strikes,” Martinez explained.
“We talked a lot about his extension. He came to Spring Training, his extension was a lot better than it was in ‘20, so we wanted to see that this outing and just kind of build him up.
“He’s been missing all year long, you know,” the fifth-year manager added, “he has this neck thing for the whole year, so getting him back in and back out on the mound might take a little time, but this is a good start for him today to get him back, get him ready, and get him in shape.”
How did Sánchez’s first start in the majors since September 26, 2020 go?
Sánchez gave up a leadoff walk to Ronald Acuña, Jr. and a 386-foot, two-run home run by Dansby Swanson in the first two plate appearances of the game, but then retired 11 of the next 12 batters he faced to get through four innings on 57 pitches, with the score tied, 2-2 after the bottom of the second.
Travis d’Arnaud and Marcell Ozuna hit back-to-back singles off of Sánchez to start the top of the fifth inning, as movement started up in the Nationals’ bullpen, but Sánchez got two outs when Robinson Canó grounded into a 6-3 double play, and he got to two strikes on Michael Harris II, but their 10-pitch at-bat ended in a two-run home run to right field, a 410-foot shot which put the Braves on top, 4-2 after four and a half.
That was it for Sánchez in a five-inning, 90-pitch outing.
Aníbal Sánchez’s Line: 5.0 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 5 Ks, 2 HRs, 90 P, 52 S, 3/3 GO/FO.
“He pitched really well overall,” Martinez said after the 5-4 loss to the Braves. “I mean, the first inning, I think he had a little bit of jitters, believe it or not. But then he settled down, and he was throwing the ball really, really well. And then he had a battle there with Harris, threw the pitch up, and he got to it, and like I said, one pitch, for me, changed the game, but I thought he competed and did really well.”
Sánchez threw six different pitches according to baseballsavant.com, ranging from 24% changeups to 10% curves, with 23% fastballs, 17% cutters, 13% sinkers, and 12% sliders.
He got 10 swinging strikes on 39 swings, and 12 called strikes spread out among the six pitches he threw.
“I thought he threw the ball well. He really did. He didn’t throw as many curveballs as I thought he would throw,” Martinez said.
“His cutter was good, his changeup was good. He threw a few curveballs at the end there, but I thought he was going to throw more curveballs. But by design, because he does his homework, he wanted to pound the lefties with cutters and changeups, and the righties, he threw the ball in quite a bit, so it was good to see him go out and compete like that.”
“For two years off, I feel really, really good,” Sánchez said, as quoted by MASN writer Mark Zuckerman after the loss.
“The Braves right now are a pretty hot team. I made two mistakes, and they took advantage of that.”
“We talked about this before,” Martinez added, “about him working to get back. He put in a lot of time to get back and get healthy. To see him go out there and for it come to fruition, it was awesome. I talked to him after the game. He gave me a big hug. Typical Aníbal, he was upset, frustrated, but I told him, I said, ‘You waited a long time for that, but I thought you did well. You were one pitch away from really doing some really good things,’ but I thought, I said, ‘You really threw the ball well, so stay right there.’”