Five scoreless innings by Patrick Corbin is nothing to scoff at these days. The Nationals are counting any encouraging results by the long-slumping lefty as major positives, and for the third straight start this evening Corbin was quite encouraging.
Davey Martinez also doesn’t want to jeopardize those encouraging results going down the drain in one bad sequence. So when Corbin departed tonight’s game against the Mets at the end of the fifth, zeros on the scoreboard but four walks and 86 pitches on his register, the Nats manager decided not to press his luck.
"Man, he had a lot of high-leverage innings there. He got into a lot of jams," Martinez said. "And he threw the ball well. He just walked a lot of guys. I talked to him in the fifth inning, and he was honest: He got a little fatigued. Reason being, he threw (86) pitches in five innings. He worked through a lot of different situations."
So out came Corbin and in came Carl Edwards Jr. to make his first appearance for the Nationals. Summoned from Triple-A Rochester earlier in the afternoon after allowing only one run on three hits over 14 1/3 innings, the 30-year-old reliever was now being entrusted to protect a two-run lead in a big league game.
By the time Edwards departed, that two-run lead had morphed into a one-run deficit. The right-hander surrendered two singles, a walk and then a two-run double to Jeff McNeil that proved the difference in what wound up a 4-2 loss to New York.
"After all the work we did, he was the guy," Martinez said. "We knew he could throw cutters up, changeups and his curveball."
There were other reasons the Nationals lost the opener of a six-game homestand. They couldn’t give themselves many opportunities to deliver in the clutch, taking only two at-bats with runners in scoring position. They were again sloppy in the field, with Dee Strange-Gordon (filling in at shortstop for Alcides Escobar, who was scratched with a swollen left index finger) and third baseman Maikel Franco each committing a throwing error and Juan Soto missing the cutoff man at a key moment. And they ran into two more outs, including one at the plate.
"We've got to limit the mistakes," Martinez said. "We're shooting ourselves in the foot every time we go out there and we've got so many walks and so many errors. We've just got to clean that up."
But the top of the sixth proved to be the most significant half-inning of the night, and that put the spotlight squarely on the newest member of the Nationals bullpen.
Edwards was called up today because of his past success with the Cubs while Martinez was bench coach on a staff that also included current Nats pitching coach Jim Hickey and catching and strategy coach Henry Blanco. He also was called up because he was dominating at Rochester.
The jump back to the big leagues, though, wasn’t kind to the righty. Edwards immediately surrendered back-to-back singles to Pete Alonso and J.D. Davis, then after striking out Starling Marte issued a walk to Eduardo Escobar to load the bases before McNeil ripped a double past a lunging Josh Bell at first base to bring home the tying runs.
"Honestly ... this is my first outing," Edwards said. "I wish it could've gone perfect, but it is what it is. I do know one thing for sure, one thing that's a fact: It won't happen again. ... Yeah, I was throwing really well down at Triple-A, but the big leagues is different. You get more adrenaline. You actually have fans here. I was just happy I was out there and I got out of the inning."
A subsequent sacrifice fly by James McCann brought home the go-ahead run, and that’s all the Mets would need to spoil Corbin’s strong start.
Corbin hasn’t taken the mound with reason for optimism in some time, but on the heels of back-to-back strong performances he emerged from the dugout tonight feeling as confident as anyone could reasonably expect. Besides, he had his new personal catcher behind the plate working with him again.
The Nationals never intended for Riley Adams to be Corbin’s guy, but the results have dictated this needs to become the norm. In four previous starts working together, Corbin owned a 2.93 ERA with Adams as his batterymate, and that included his most recent encouraging outings. So Martinez decided not to mess with a good thing right now and started Adams even though he just caught Sunday’s road trip finale in Anaheim.
"I think the more you catch anybody, the more comfortable you get," Adams said. "The more I get back there, the more I see him, it just helps with getting on the same page."
The duo worked well again. Corbin cruised through a 1-2-3 top of the first on 16 pitches (13 strikes) and then got through the second thanks to a double-play grounder and his third strikeout of the evening. Even when he got into trouble, the left-hander calmly pitched his way out of it. Despite allowing two batters to reach base in the third, fourth and again in the fifth inning, he wriggled away without suffering any damage.
"I thought tonight when it mattered, I made some pitches and got some outs, kept them off the board," he said. "You just kind of look at that, and I'm happy with that."
Those jams did put some added strain on Corbin’s arm, though. He issued four walks along the way, and that drove his pitch count to 86. So even though there was a zero in the runs column, the starter found himself getting pulled after five innings.
"Maybe my legs felt a little bit heavy there," he said. "But I felt pretty good. ... Pitch count just got up a little bit. Overall, I was pleased with it. Would like to go a little deeper, but sometimes that happens."
At the time of his departure, Corbin had managed to lower his ERA from 11.20 to 6.06 in the span of three starts. And he left this game in line to earn his first win of the season, thanks to a couple of runs scored by his teammates, though there was a chance to add more to that total.
Franco’s two-out RBI double in the fourth was the latest in a growing string of clutch hits for the veteran third baseman, now batting a cool .387 with runners in scoring position. The problem: Third base coach Gary DiSarcina, after watching Bell score easily, waved around trailing runner Yadiel Hernandez and watched as the Mets threw him out at the plate by a considerable margin.
"Gary's over there, he's seeing where the ball is," Martinez said. "I thought McNeil made a heck of a throw from the relay spot. But it's two outs in that situation. We're going to try to push the envelope a little bit. For some reason, we're not scoring as many runs at home as we did on the road. So he tried to push the envelope right there."
One inning later, Adams turned in an offensive contribution to go along with his strong defensive work, blasting a solo shot to left, his second homer of the season, to extend the Nationals’ lead to 2-0.
That lead, alas, would not hold up.