It hadn’t happened in 43 games, 43 long games without a member of the Nationals rotation leaving the ballpark with a win added to his season total. It had long since surpassed the 1949 Senators (35 games) as the longest such winless streak in modern major league history, and though there had been several reasons beyond the rotation for this, it still was the ultimate indignity for this group of starters and the organization as a whole through a miserable summer.
So when it finally ended today, when Patrick Corbin was credited with the win in a 3-2 victory over the Reds, it may not have been cause for wild celebration inside the home clubhouse. But it sure wasn’t something to ignore altogether.
"We were fully aware in here what was going on," said Kyle Finnegan, who finished it off with a perfect top of the ninth. "I think the bullpen had lost a few of those along the way. I know there was one that Paolo (Espino) had that I gave up the lead, and I wound up stealing the win from him that game. To get Pat that win today and put an end to that was awesome."
With six innings of two-run ball – only one of those runs earned – Corbin put forth his best start in a while. And thanks to a couple of clutch hits in the fourth and fifth innings from his teammates, the Nationals bullpen found itself in position to actually close this thing out over the final three innings.
Hunter Harvey retired three of four batters faced in the seventh. Carl Edwards Jr. retired the side in the eighth. And Finnegan retired the side in the ninth with no drama to notch his eighth save.
Thus did a Nats starter earn the win, incredibly, for the first time since July 6, when Josiah Gray struck out 11 Phillies over six innings in a 3-2 win at Citizens Bank Park.
"Everyone here knows that record that was broken today," Corbin said. "It's not something that I'm proud of. We've been pitching good as a staff, and a lot of guys have been going out there giving us a chance to win games. It just happened to be today that I gave up a couple runs early, the offense up and scored big, and then our bullpen came in and pitched great."
Corbin himself hadn’t won a game since June 28 against the Pirates, a full 10 starts ago. He had been 0-7 with an 8.33 ERA since. He’s still 5-17 with a 6.56 ERA, nothing to crow about. But he more than did his part today, and at least for now pushed aside talk of becoming the majors’ first 18-game loser since Chris Archer and James Shields in 2016.
Corbin’s afternoon didn’t exactly get off to a rousing start: Two batters in, he faced a first-and-third jam, thanks to two singles and a bobble in right field by Joey Meneses. That misplay did set the stage for the Reds to score an unearned run, but Corbin got out of the first without any more damage.
"I thought I made some good pitches; we got some ground balls to the right side when we were in a shift," he said. "To be able to keep them to one is big there."
A towering leadoff homer by Stuart Fairchild (5-for-50 in his major league career prior to that at-bat) in the second extended the Reds’ lead to 2-0, but Corbin clamped down from that point on. He allowed only two of final 17 batters he faced to reach, keeping his workload minimal enough to allow him to complete the sixth on only 82 pitches.
The lefty certainly looked like he could keep on going, but with an off-day looming Monday, Davey Martinez decided to let Corbin leave on a high note and go to his bullpen right then and there and try to bring an end to a most remarkable (if upsetting) streak.
"For me, you send him out for 10 or 15 more pitches, something happens, whether it's a bloop or anything that can happen," Martinez said. "I thought just get a fresh guy in there, who was hot, and he had done well. Get Harvey in there, and go from there."
The primary reason a Nationals starter hadn’t won a game in so long was the performance of Nationals starters. But that hadn’t been the case over the last couple of weeks.
Including Corbin’s outing today, Nats starters have a 3.91 ERA over their last 10 games. Toss out Cade Cavalli’s rocky major league debut Friday night, and that number plummets to 2.91. That none of those previous starts was good enough to earn that particular day’s starter a win was a product not of poor pitching but a lack of run-scoring from the lineup.
"That's the thing: It's a team game, and the starters are doing a good job," Martinez said. "On the other side of it, we've got to score more runs and keep us in the ballgame. If we could score three, four, five runs, we've got an opportunity, the way our guys are pitching."
Things seemed to be headed down a familiar path this afternoon when Reds lefty Nick Lodolo faced the minimum through three scoreless innings. Even when the Nationals threatened to put together a big rally, they had to scratch and claw their way to a couple of runs in the bottom of the fourth.
With the bases loaded and nobody out, Nelson Cruz drew an RBI walk on a 3-2 pitch that appeared to be a strike to everyone in the park except for the only man whose opinion mattered: plate umpire Jeremy Riggs. Two batters later, with the bases still loaded but now two out, Riley Adams shot a single up the middle to bring home the game-tying run, only to watch as Luke Voit was easily thrown out at the plate trying to score from second, ending that inning in a hurry.
"It's two outs, and he had a good secondary lead," Martinez said. "Sometimes you've got to tip your hat. The guy threw the ball in the air, threw it right there. But with two outs, I would definitely send him. Unless he trips, you've got to send him."
Ildemaro Vargas would open the bottom of the fifth with a leadoff blast to left – the journeyman’s third homer in 10 days, all of them to give his team the lead – and it was hard not to think about what that would’ve meant had it come with the bases still loaded an inning earlier.
"Right there, our third base coach was aggressive, and the outfielder made a tremendous throw and threw him out," Vargas said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "That's just part of the game. It could've easily been that I took that turn and struck out or not produced, overswung or done something I normally don't do that much. Luckily, I did get my at-bat the next inning, and I was able to produce."
Indeed, Vargas did give the Nats a 3-2 lead and put his team's starter in position to earn the win. That’s a phrase that hadn’t been said around these parts in a long time.