WASHINGTON — The last time Aníbal Sánchez started an MLB game, there were no fans in attendance to see it happen.
The Nationals’ right-hander took the mound against the Atlanta Braves on Thursday for his first outing since Sept. 26, 2020. His last start in the majors with crowd cheering behind him was all the way back in Game 3 of the 2019 World Series. After taking the 2021 season off and spending the last four months rehabbing a neck injury, Thursday’s game felt like a “blessing.”
“It was hard to [get] here, especially because it was one year off from baseball,” Sánchez said after the game. “When I finally made the team, my injury took me three months to be here. So I’m working hard. I think I prepared pretty good so today I showed my all effort that I’ve been doing.”
Sánchez, 38, went five innings in the Nationals’ 5-4 loss, allowing four runs on four hits with two walks and five strikeouts. The Braves did all their damage against him via the home run, one coming off the bat of shortstop Dansby Swanson in the top of the first and the other courtesy of Michael Harris II with Sánchez one strike away from getting out of the fifth.
He wasn’t the only pitcher making a long-awaited return to D.C. Veteran reliever Tyler Clippard last pitched for the Nationals in 2014 as part of a seven-year run with the team during which he made two All-Star teams and served as their primary set-up man.
Clippard came out for the eighth to his walk-up song of “Ready or Not Here I Come” by the Delfonics and made the long jog from the Nationals’ bullpen out to the mound. Fans gave him a welcoming ovation, a moment he appreciated before locking in and holding Atlanta scoreless for two innings.
“That run in from the bullpen was probably the coolest part for me,” Clippard said. “I haven’t felt that good running in a long time.
“Just a lot of good memories and I felt like the fans were pretty receptive to me coming in the game, which was a cool feeling, and yeah, something I’ll never forget.”
Washington signed the 37-year-old to a minor-league deal last offseason with a non-roster invitation to spring training. He didn’t make the team and instead reported to Triple-A Rochester, where he gave the Red Wings a reliable arm while serving as a mentor to some of the other players.
But ultimately, Clippard wanted to get back to D.C. Though the facilities inside the ballpark are pretty similar to when he left, he noted how much the city around the stadium had been built up over the years. Clippard smiled and added that he was jealous, saying he wished he played in Washington now rather than back when there wasn’t as much to do.
“I felt like I was home,” Clippard said. “It was a familiar feeling for sure…having a Curly W on me gives me a lot of confidence for whatever reason. I just feel good out there.”