LOS ANGELES – There is no greater indignity for a starting pitcher then to see his manager emerge from the dugout steps and make the long, slow walk toward him in the first inning. Unless said starter is injured or dealing with some other abnormal circumstances, the first-inning hook is as humiliating a fate as a big league pitcher will ever experience. Which is why it happens so infrequently.
It had never happened to Patrick Corbin in his career, not in his first start, not in his 100th start, not in his 200th start, not in any of countless other miserable starts during a miserable three-year stretch for the Nationals left-hander.
And then, in career start No. 250, there stood Corbin on the mound, the Dodgers having scored six runs in the bottom of the first, all of them scoring with two outs, his pitch count up to a whopping 45. And here came Davey Martinez to ask for the ball and leave his veteran starter taking the walk of shame back to the dugout as the Dodger Stadium crowd serenaded him.
"He faced 10 hitters. He was behind five of them," Martinez said. "And the guys he got ahead of, he just couldn't put them away. That was the big deal right there. And he had a lot of pitches, so we had to go get him."
Everything that transpired over the remaining eight-plus innings in the Nationals’ 7-1 loss to the Dodgers felt inconsequential. Only hours after pulling off their most dramatic win of the season, the Nats showed up for this early-afternoon matinee with a shot at their first series sweep of the season, their first-ever series sweep in this historic ballpark. Those dreams, for all intents and purposes, were dashed before the first inning even came to a close.
For that, the blame goes to Corbin. He was one pitch away from escaping the inning with no damage at all, stranding leadoff hitter Mookie Betts on third base. But then he walked Will Smith on a borderline 3-2 pitch, and the wheels fell off.
"I just didn't fool them at all today," Corbin said. "I got into some deeper counts with them. They put the ball in play, and good things happened for them. And I wasn't able to get that last out there to try to go as deep as I can."
Justin Turner singled home a run. Trayce Thompson singled home another run. Hanser Alberto doubled home two more runs. Austin Barnes singled home one of his own. And when Victor Robles and Juan Soto let Gavin Lux’s fly ball to right-center fall harmlessly to the ground between them, the Dodgers’ six-run rally was complete.
One more batter (Betts, who reached on an infield single), and Martinez decided enough was enough. Corbin’s pitch count was at 45, and that represents the danger zone for any professional starter at any level, no matter the inning or the score.
"I think obviously the more you throw in a shorter period of time, you probably lose some command and things like that," Corbin said. "I feel OK right now. But when you're throwing that many in an inning, it definitely wears on the body a little bit."
"We could've gotten him out of there hopefully at 40-something pitches, and then we'd see what he does the next couple innings," Martinez said. "But it just wasn't going to happen. At some point, around the 40th pitch, I was getting a little worried. I don't want to get him hurt."
So it was that Corbin failed to complete one inning for the first time in his 10-year career. It was only the ninth time in Nationals history a starter didn’t make it through the first inning, and only the fifth time that was the case due to performance reasons. The others on that unfortunate list: John Halama in 2005, Jeremy Guthrie in 2017 and Jason Marquis twice in 2010.
"How short it was, how frustrating everything was, it was tough," Corbin said. "Great job by our bullpen. I guess it's a good thing we've got an off-day tomorrow, but it sucks when you can't go out there, do your job and pitch deep in games and try to save them."
Had this been an out-of-nowhere blip, it could be shrugged off as inconsequential. That, of course, isn’t the case with Corbin, who has now surrendered six or more runs six times this season, 14 times the last two seasons.
His ERA now sits at an MLB-worst 6.49. His record is 4-14. His WHIP is 1.766. No qualifying major league pitcher has finished a season with a WHIP over 1.700 since the Pirates’ Ian Snell in 2008.
That’s mostly because few pitchers with such gaudy numbers would be allowed to continue pitching every fifth day an entire season, but the Nationals at this point have shown no inclination they intend to shut Corbin down or move him to the bullpen. Nor trade him.
Asked this morning on his weekly radio appearance on 106.7 The Fan about the possibility of including Corbin in a Soto package deal in order to dump the remaining $67.6 million he is owed through 2024, general manager Mike Rizzo shot down the notion.
“We’ve never contacted a team and talked about Juan Soto and attaching any contract to any player,” Rizzo said. “We’re not going to dilute a return for any player by adding a bad contract. That’s not where we’re at in our organization at this time. We want to get the most for each and every trade that we do. So we certainly are not going to tack on anybody’s contract to anybody’s deal, including Juan Soto’s or Josh Bell’s or anybody’s.”
Rizzo, of course, signed Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract prior to the 2019 season, then watched him play an integral role in the team’s run to a World Series title, including three scoreless innings of relief to earn the win in Game 7 in Houston.
Nearly three years later, the left-hander is shell of his former self, statistically the worst starter in baseball since 2020. And he and the Nationals appear to remain at a loss for answers on how to fix that.
"For me, you're looking at: He's throwing the ball well," Martinez said. "But he's just not finishing. He's taking extra pitches to finish hitters off. Today, I didn't think his slider was all that sharp. And he left a couple up with two strikes, where the guys could put the bat on the ball. But his fastball's good. His location was just a tack off. But when you fall behind, you've got to attack hitters. And when you get to two strikes and you can't finish off hitters, especially these guys, they're pretty good."