After latest loss, Nats could face decision with Corbin

In 17 seasons since Major League Baseball returned to Washington, the number of Nationals players who have been booed by home fans can possibly be counted on one hand. It’s just not a regular occurrence in these parts.

The number of players from the 2019 World Series roster that have ever been booed? Well, that number stood at zero until 7:53 p.m. tonight, when Patrick Corbin handed the ball over to Davey Martinez and made the long walk back to the dugout having just surrendered seven runs in 1 2/3 tortured innings to set the tone in what would end up a 7-1 loss to the Giants.

A crowd of 23,751, many of whom probably stood behind Corbin throughout his struggles in 2020, 2021 and his first three starts in 2022, finally decided not to hold back any longer. It wasn’t a thunderous round of boos from everyone in attendance – that was reserved for a questionable upholding of a third inning call that saw Juan Soto ruled out trying to stretch a double off the wall into a triple – but neither was it a smattering of boos from a few rogue individuals.

This was the moment those fans chose to voice their displeasure for Corbin, who may have won Game 7 in Houston with three scoreless innings of relief but since that glorious October night 2 1/2 years ago has been unequivocally the worst starting pitcher in baseball.

Corbin has now made 46 starts over the last three seasons. He has delivered 26 losses, most in the majors. He has produced a 5.81 ERA, highest in the majors. And he has compiled a 1.554 WHIP, worst in the majors by a longshot.

And it’s only gotten worse during the first three weeks of this season. Corbin, who started opening night against the Mets, is now 0-3 with a gaudy 11.20 ERA and even gaudier 2.561 WHIP.

"I’m pissed. I’m upset," said the lefty, who rarely shows any outward emotion, positive or negative. "I’m trying to do everything I can to get better. I’m really just still searching a little bit. But I’ll come in tomorrow, like I do every day, and try to get better.”

That's what Corbin intends to do. The question at this point, though, is: What do the Nationals intend to do?

All things being equal, Corbin wouldn’t still be in the big league rotation five days from now. But all things are not equal, and the $83 million the club still owe the lefty over the next three years is impossible to ignore. It compels the team to provide more rope to a struggling pitcher than it might otherwise.

But even so, there comes a point when enough is enough, right? Try as they might to fix Corbin, to find some magic tweak that brings out the best in him again, the Nationals simply haven’t been able to do it. And if it hasn’t happened yet, what reason is there to believe it’s still possible?

"He's going to pitch every five days," Martinez said, quashing any thought of an immediate change. "His stuff is good. We've just got to get him to understand what he needs to do with it, consistency-wise." 

If they do decide at some point to make a change, what options are available to the Nats? They can’t send Corbin to the minors, not without his consent as a player with more than five years of big league service time. They could designate him for assignment, essentially ending his tenure with the organization, but would still be on the hook for all of his remaining salary unless another club was willing to take it on.

The more plausible moves, then, would either be to make Corbin the most expensive reliever in baseball or to find a way to place him on the injured list, assuming they can convince him something somewhere on his body doesn’t feel right. He isn't suggesting that's remotely the case.

"The bullpen before the game, I felt really good," he said. "And coming out in that first inning, I think that’s the best it’s been velocity-wise, and stuff-wise I think it was the best that I’ve had up to this point and felt really good. ... Just putting too many guys on base, not making pitches, not getting ahead of guys and staying on the attack."

Regardless of Corbin's situation, the Nationals already need a fill-in starter for Saturday afternoon’s game, the domino effect of Monday’s rainout and Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Diamondbacks.

And it doesn’t appear that fill-in start will go to Paolo Espino, who had been held out of games for several days but was used out of the bullpen to pitch the final two innings of tonight’s debacle. That opens the door for Aaron Sanchez, veteran of seven big league seasons with the Blue Jays, Astros and Giants, to be promoted from Triple-A Rochester to start Saturday. The 29-year-old right-hander was in big league camp this spring on a minor league deal and would need to be added to the 40-man roster, necessitating a corresponding move.

Martinez wasn't prepared to announce any pitching plans after tonight's game.

"I'm going to go in there right now," he said, referring to his office, where general manager Mike Rizzo would be joining him. "We used the guys that we thought (might pitch Saturday), so I'm going to go talk to Riz right now."

They might also talk about what occurred in the top of the ninth tonight, when some aggressive baserunning by the Giants appeared to get under their skin.

His team leading by six runs, Thairo Estrada ran from first base on Espino's pitch to Brandon Crawford, who blooped a single into shallow left field. That left Estrada approaching third by the time the ball landed, and that prompted Mark Hallberg to wave him around in an attempt to score a tack-on run. Shortstop Alcides Escobar, though, made a strong throw to the plate to retire Estrada. Then after jogging in because the inning had ended, Escobar and others on the Nationals began jawing at Estrada and the Giants, the insinuation that they felt their opponents were trying to run up the score on them in the final inning of a lopsided game.

"They did some things that we felt like was uncalled for," Martinez said. "But you guys can ask Gabe Kapler about that."

Kapler, the Giants manager, calmly defended the attempt to add to their lead, much as they have done in previous games that featured a similar ruffling of feathers.

"We scored seven runs in an inning tonight," Kapler told reporters. "With Josh Bell and Juan Soto and Nelson Cruz in the middle of their lineup, we know they’re capable of scoring seven runs in an inning as well. ... It’s definitely not about running up the score. We felt like we’re respecting our opponents, and we’re gonna respect our opponents at every turn. This is about using every tool at our disposal to compete. You probably saw that their bullpen was excellent and they threw up a bunch of zeros against us. We know that they’re a talented group and are capable of doing that, and we need to try to compete at every turn."

Escobar declined to speak to reporters after the game, through a club spokesman. Martinez declined to discuss the matter in any more detail.

"I'm done with it," the manager said. "I talked to the team about it, so we're going to play baseball the way we play."

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