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Cardinals, Nationals open NLCS at Busch

Dexter Fowler strikes out against Washington's Anibal Sanchez in the first inning of NLCS Game 1 at Busch Stadium. (Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com)

In the Cardinals’ clubhouse late Friday, as a handful of hitters who produced one hit all night tugged on hoodies and jackets and braced for another kind of cold snap, Matt Carpenter leaned over to Paul Goldschmidt with a question. He wanted to know, roughly, how many pitches over the plate he saw from Washington starter Anibal Sanchez.

Maybe one, Goldschmidt said, shaking his head.

Carpenter nodded.

Maybe one more than he did.

There weren’t many as Sanchez courted postseason history and took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on the way to a one-hit, 2-0 victory for the Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. With a mix of sinkers and off-speed pitches that capitalized on a friendly strike zone, Washington’s righthander came four outs shy of the first full-game no-hitter thrown against the Cardinals in St. Louis since 1906, or three stadiums ago. Sanchez didn’t overpower as much as he worked over the Cardinals.

“I didn’t feel like I got anything,” Carpenter said. “Give credit where credit is due. I was 0-2 in every at-bat and never got a pitch to swing at. He had a good mix of all of his stuff working. The strike zone was accommodating to pitchers hitting spots. Offensively, it felt like we had a good game plan going, and he just had a better one.”

The shutout gives the Nationals home-field advantage in the best-of-seven series — something their better record would have earned them had the Cardinals not won the National League Central title. It also sets the Cardinals up to face a filibuster of elite pitching — starting with Max Scherzer in Game 2 and Stephen Strasburg in Game 3. Washington can throw three pitchers who finished in the NL’s top 10 for ERA in the next three games. The Cardinals’ offense has been prone to turning lesser pitchers into stars, stars into aces.

One game after scoring 10 runs in one inning, the Cardinals managed one hit in nine innings.

Not one starter had a hit against Sanchez. It took pinch-hitter Jose Martinez’s single with two out in the eighth to break Sanchez’s bid and bring in Sean Doolittle for the four-out save.

Subbing for closer Daniel Hudson, who was away for the birth of his daughter, Doolittle retired all four batters he faced.

“Anibal comes out attacking their hitters, working quick and having quick innings,” the lefty said. “I can’t speak for the affect that it had on the dugout, but at least in the bullpen that was a very calming thing. Here we have one of our starters, one of our leaders of this team, going out and he’s setting the tone for the game. It just put everybody at ease.”

The game’s two runs came after two decisions by Cardinals manager Mike Shildt. Rather than walking catcher Yan Gomes, the No. 8 hitter, to have starter Miles Mikolas face Sanchez with a runners on in the second inning, the Cardinals challenged Gomes. He lashed an RBI double for the first of his two hits and a 1-0 lead. In the seventh, Andrew Miller struck out Juan Soto but was replaced by John Brebbia for Kendrick with the runner at third. Kendrick struck for a single and cemented the 2-0 lead.

Mikolas scattered seven hits through his six innings and struck out seven, mostly by following Sanchez’s lead — take a little off, put a little on.

“In. Out. Up. Down. Slow. Fast. Mix up the speed. Move the ball around,” Mikolas listed. “If there’s one spot in my life where I like to be deceiving and deceitful, it’s out there on the mound.”

Soto, the Nats’ wunderkind outfielder, saw a few curveballs in the dirt from Mikolas, and thus began a dance that is likely to carry through the series. Soto has an animated routine at the plate that sometimes involves lunging at the pitcher after receiving a pitch, and it always includes shuffling his feet. He also adjusts his protective athletic cup. In the fifth inning, after Mikolas walked Anthony Rendon to load the bases with a one-run deficit, Soto had a chance to break the game open, and the Cardinals’ righthander coaxed groundout from him to end the inning.

Mikolas adjusted his protective cup as he walked past Soto, as a greeting.

“He has a little routine where he likes to shuffle in the box,” Mikolas said. “. . .I was having fun giving it back to him. Throw a couple of curveballs in the dirt, and he’s shuffling and kind of eyeballing me, and giving me the cup adjustment. All in good fun. Giving it back.”

Said Soto: “He (got) me out. He can do whatever he wants. I’m just going to laugh.”

Until Martinez’s hit, that was about the only thing that struck the Nats.

Sanchez, the fourth member of the Nats’ standout starter trio, controlled the rhythm and tempo of the game, as if he had the Cardinals by the baton. The opening act for the Nationals’ half-billion-dollar rotation, Sanchez is the jazz to his teammates’ speed, mettle.

Scherzer still operates at the higher octaves of the strike zone with velocity. Patrick Corbin conducts one of the best sliders in the game and arguably the most effective from a lefty. Strasburg brings the hammer with a power curve.

Sanchez, meanwhile, is more of a slow jam. He’ll bring in the sinker for a few pitches, shift to the relatively new cutter, and then plunge into a splitfinger. He’s got a medley of changeups that he can toss out there at speeds that range from slow to slower to what his teammates call “the butterfly.”

“I just want to be out of the power zone of those guys,” Sanchez said. “If you make a mistake against those guys they’re pretty strong, they can change the score in one swing.”

There are few pitchers the Cardinals have seen more than Sanchez given his time with the Marlins and all the starts he had against the Cardinals in spring training, and yet he has so many views to give them.

Inning after inning, Sanchez kept playing the no-hits.

“Some guys think he has five pitches,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “Sometimes I think he has nine. He throws everything at different speeds. He keeps hitters off balance. I think the key to any pitcher, if you’re not a power pitcher, is to keep guys off balance. He never throws two of the same pitches. He always mixes all his pitches in.”

Goldschmidt saw the oeuvre in his first at-bat. Sanchez threw him nine pitches before he flew out for the final out of the first inning. Sanchez started with an 80.4-mph curveball, revved up to an 87.7-mph cutter and then did as Martinez described. He pushed in the clutch and worked through his gears, never stopping at one for long. He showed Goldschmidt an 88-mph cutter, a 92-mph sinker and, for kicks, an 86-mph splitter. Goldschmidt’s second at-bat was briefer, but had a similar variety — cut, sink — and he flew out before getting the split. All of the pitches veered toward the edges, all drew him out from the middle of the plate.

Sanchez retired the first 10 Cardinals he faced in order, struck out three of the first nine, and it wasn’t until he let loose one of those butterflies that a batter reached base.

“His ability to change speeds — it’s probably one of the best in the game,” Scherzer said. “The way he can change speeds, even on his changeup. He can slow it all the way down. We call it the butterfly. He can throw the butterfly in there and . . . just every hitter just waves at it.”

His catcher, Gomes, joked after the shutout how the pitch gets its name from “the feeling in your stomach.”

The first of the butterflies floated in to Kolten Wong at 72 mph. Wong eventually walked on that pitch. He stole second as the Cardinals are likely to do as often as possible in this series, and the reason why — an errant throw from catcher Gomes — ushered Wong to third. He stood there as Ozuna popped up to third base to end the inning.

In the sixth inning, Sanchez hit rookie Randy Arozarena, who pinch-hit for Mikolas. Arozarena did what the Cardinals will — stole second. He got to third on a groundout and then had a good view as Sanchez got Wong to fly out.

In the seventh, Sanchez let free a 66-mph changeup and that butterfly kissed Molina for another hit batter. Molina didn’t budge from first, but the exchange gave Sanchez’s pitching line some poetry.

He hit more batters than batters hit him.

When the Cardinals stormed to 20 wins in their first 30 games they gained a reputation swiftly for being a fastball-crushing team. They devoured power. Word got around, and one Cardinals coach said “it’s not a secret” how teams downshifted to off-speed against them, and often. For most of the summer Goldschmidt saw more off-speed pitches than he did fastballs for the first time in his career, and other players, like rookie Harrison Bader, were tested again and again with breaking pitches out of the zone.

All of the types of pitches that befuddled the Cardinals are the pitches Sanchez throws. And Friday is what happens with the scouting report puts on cleats and has command.

“You’ve got to pick one or the other offensively,” said Carpenter, his jacket on ready for the chill outside. “Offensively, if you’re going to be a really good offensive team and really hit the fastball then that’s what you’re going to do. Not many teams, not many hitters, in general can do it all. Anibal did a great job of using that, and we weren’t able to scratch anything against him.”

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