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Aníbal Sánchez is the Nationals’ Zito

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Will Washington’s fourth starter, like Barry Zito before him, take down a Justin Verlander before the season is through?

League Championship Series - Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals - Game One Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

This World Series between the Nationals and Astros has no doubt reminded Giants fans of the 2012 matchup against the Tigers. Three of the Detroit’s vaunted rotation have reunited in this year’s Fall Classic: Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Aníbal Sánchez. The focus has been on the starting pitching because in addition to those three, Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Greinke, and Patrick Corbin will all make starts. For those who can’t stand bullpen games and miss watching a pitcher grind through the order (i.e. most people?), this will be a special treat. Each game will be a marquee pitching matchup, and the series will be decided by who outduels whom.

Or at least that’s what will happen on paper. In practice, anything could happen. The 2012 World Series is a reminder of that. The Giants’ top three were fine enough. Matt Cain was still MATT CAIN, Madison Bumgarner was coming into his own though he ended the season poorly, and Ryan Vogelsong was transcendent especially in the playoffs. However, the Giants burned all their cooldowns just to get to the World Series so in Game One, it wasn’t any of those pitchers on the mound going up against Justin Verlander, the reigning Cy Young winner and MVP, it was Barry Zito.

Analysts and writers were right to pick the Tigers over the Giants in Game One. Barry Zito was on a roll, throwing some of the best games of his Giants career, but Zito at his best doesn’t compare to Justin Verlander. I don’t need to tell you what happened. You’ve seen the verlander-wow dot gif. You have the commemorative blu-ray on a shelf. Maybe you even tried to get that image of Zito riding a unicorn tattooed on your back.

Zito’s October is proof that the playoffs are random nonsense where all the best available data can be thrown out the window. Sometimes a fourth starter who had recently been bad is the difference between a championship and a measly pennant. Should history repeat itself, we might not be talking about the dominance of Verlander or Cole or Strasburg or Scherzer or Greinke or Corbin (geeze that’s a lot of aces). We might instead be talking about the contributions of Aníbal Sánchez.

Sánchez isn’t getting the Game One nod—the Nationals are too rested for that—but he’s the closest proxy to Barry Zito. Sánchez’s career began promisingly enough. He didn’t win a Cy Young award, but Sánchez’s best season (162 ERA+ in 2013) compares with Zito’s (158 ERA+ in 2002). Like Zito, he signed a big contract and promptly fell into an open manhole. At the end of his deal, Sánchez wasn’t good enough to stick with the Tigers. Not the 2012 Tigers mind you, the 98-loss 2017 Tigers who were a Sandoval walk-off away from losing the first overall draft pick.

But he clawed his way back, and he has become a major reason why the Nationals are in the World Series. He may not have lain down a perfect drag bunt, but almost no-hitting the Cardinals is pretty good, too I suppose. If he hadn’t thrown five innings of one-run ball against the Dodgers, we might be gearing up for another Astros Dodgers World Series which is an entirely gross proposition. By championship win probability added which measures a player’s contributions toward winning the World Series, Sánchez is sixth in all of baseball. The only starters ahead of him are Scherzer and Cole.

I, for one, will be rooting for Sánchez to have his own Zito moment, where he takes down Justin Verlander or a Verlander-adjacent individual despite the odds. He’s the perfect blend of underdog and redemption story. In a way, he’s not just the Zito of the World Series, he’s also the Vogelsong. Let’s hope the series isn’t over by the time he gets in a game.