ST. LOUIS — For all the new wisdom in baseball, some theories stay timeless. One in particular guides Mike Rizzo in building annual contenders for the Washington Nationals.
“I was taught early in my scouting and G.M. career that once you have starting pitching, anything is possible,” said Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager, “and if you don’t have it, nothing is possible.”
In Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium on Friday, even a no-hitter seemed possible — from Washington’s fourth starter, Anibal Sanchez, who held the St. Louis Cardinals without a hit until Jose Martinez singled with two outs in the eighth inning. Sean Doolittle collected the final four outs of a 2-0 victory for the Nationals.
“Starting pitching is absolutely our biggest strength,” Doolittle said, adding that Sanchez’s aggressive approach had a calming influence on the bullpen. “They absolutely set the tone for this team.”
That is just how Rizzo likes it. He started his professional career as a minor league infielder in 1982, a year in which 90 major leaguers threw the minimum 162 innings required for the earned-run average title. This season — in a league with four more teams — that total was 61.
But four of those pitchers are members of the Nationals. Another four pitch for the Cardinals and four others for the Houston Astros.
The Yankees had just one qualified pitcher this season (Masahiro Tanaka), but still, with three of the four remaining teams built around sturdy rotations, is it fair to spot a trend? Could durable starters working deep into playoff games be the new — old — way to win in October?
“I don’t know; I think it was just the guys that are doing it,” said Max Scherzer, one of the Nationals’ aces. “Next year it will be the bullpens; the year after that it will be starters. There’s just so many ways to win baseball games through pitching, and we have seen it over the years.”
We may never again see a series like the 2005 A.L.C.S., when the Chicago White Sox got four complete games and used their bullpen for only two outs in a five-game series en route to a World Series title. But on consecutive days in these playoffs, Walker Buehler threw a career-high 117 pitches for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Gerrit Cole worked eight innings for the Astros and Sanchez nearly threw a no-hitter.
Sanchez’s game was already the ninth this postseason in which a starter had lasted at least seven innings. That matched the total for the entire 2018 postseason.
“When you’ve got incredible pitchers out on the mound — Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole and those guys — if you have an ability like that, you want to get those guys out there as much as you can,” said the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright, who worked seven and two-thirds innings in his division series start. “When you’re just looking at one month to live forever, you’re talking about every game as a must-win. That’s kind of how teams are approaching it, and they’re putting their best athletes on the field.”
The Nationals have already used Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in relief this postseason, as the Red Sox did with all five of their starters on their championship run last October. That can be risky for the long-term — most of those Boston starters fell apart this season — but in the moment, it is probably the smart play, with plenty of historical support.
Using starters as relievers is nothing new in the postseason. Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove and Warren Spahn did it long before baseball added layers of playoffs before the World Series, and many modern starters have done it, from Verlander to Noah Syndergaard to Cole Hamels.
The strategy can backfire — as it did with the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in the division series finale against Washington on Wednesday — but the possibility of seeing the best pitchers more often adds extra sizzle to October.
“In the five-game series, you’ve got to get creative and you’ve got to take the ball at every single chance you can get,” Scherzer said. “In the seven-game series, the way you’re set up, this is more like the regular season.”
The Nationals and the Cardinals both plan to use four starters in this series, as most teams do in the best-of-seven format. For Washington, that means three pitchers in Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin whose combined salaries total $525 million — and Sanchez, who signed last December for two years and $19 million.
Sanchez, 35, has been in the majors since 2006, when he threw a no-hitter as a rookie for the Marlins. Friday’s effort was not even the first time he had allowed no hits when starting an L.C.S. opener: he also did it in 2013, for Detroit in Boston, but he lasted only six innings. Sanchez threw 116 pitches that night and the Tigers’ bullpen lost the no-hitter in the ninth.
This time, Sanchez nearly took care of things on his own, baffling the Cardinals with an array of off-speed pitches — including one type of changeup his teammates call “the Butterfly” — and a fastball that rarely tops 91 miles an hour. When first baseman Ryan Zimmerman made a diving catch on a liner to start the eighth, Sanchez expected to finish the gem.
“I think that I had it, for sure,” he said, adding that a similar highlight had preserved his no-hitter for the Marlins. “Zimmerman, he caught that ball and I said, ‘O.K., always behind a no-hitter, a good play has to happen.’ And I said, ‘O.K., I had it.’”
Alas, two batters later, Martinez ruined the script by lining a 1-2 changeup to center for a clean hit. But the game was an emphatic illustration of why the Nationals invested in Sanchez even though they already had three top starters.
“When he’s on, he’s carving people up,” Rizzo said. “He’s hitting four quadrants of the strike zone with three or four pitches. He’ll invent a pitch if he has to during the game. His dexterity on the mound, that allows him, with finger pressure, to make different movements on fastballs. I saw him pitch so many times, we knew him intimately. It was a pretty easy choice to go after him when we needed another starter.”
Perhaps veteran starters will command more attention in free agency this winter, after pitchers from last year’s frigid market, like Sanchez, Tampa Bay’s Charlie Morton, Texas’ Lance Lynn and Houston’s Wade Miley, all pitched well on contracts that each totaled $30 million or less.
Rizzo, for his part, knows only that it works for his team, which stood three victories from its first World Series after Sanchez’s magic act.
“My job isn’t to show the industry anything; it’s just to put together the team that fits for us,” Rizzo said. “Over the years, we’ve put together quality clubs that compete for championships each year, and starting pitching has been our backbone.”