Through it all, through the awful starts, the mediocre starts and the hard-luck starts, Davey Martinez has stuck with Patrick Corbin. The Nationals manager has maintained throughout this three-year slump the one-time stalwart of a World Series pitching staff still had it in him, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.
Whether tonight represented a dramatic turning point or a mere blip on the radar against a weak opponent, we won’t know for a while. But for one late-June evening under an unseasonably mild D.C. summer sky, the lefty did still have it in him.
With a season-high 113 pitches and a career-high-matching 12 strikeouts, Corbin tossed eight innings of one-run ball, giving the Nats a chance to beat the Pirates. Now he just needed somebody with a bat in his hand to make it all worth it.
Enter Yadiel Hernandez. Summoned off the bench to pinch-hit for Alcides Escobar with two on and two out in the bottom of the eighth, Hernandez drilled a two-run double to right to propel the Nationals to a 3-1 victory and extend this team’s sudden hot streak.
"Everyone tonight did a good job," Corbin said. "Defense behind me. (Tanner) Rainey came in and shut the door. And then we get a couple big runs there by Yadi late. It was huge."
Winners in six of their last eight games, the Nats have taken the first two games of this series from the Pirates thanks to two (and only two) clutch hits, each of them coming in the bottom of the eighth.
Maikel Franco did it Tuesday night, blasting a two-run homer to left for the team’s lone hit in 12 at-bats with runners in scoring position. Hernandez did it tonight, delivering his clutch double to account for the team’s lone hit in 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
The rally saw Martinez use up his bench in rare fashion. He twice sent up pinch-hitters in the eighth inning: Luis García for Franco, then Hernandez for Escobar. The latter move paid off big-time when Hernandez sent an 0-1 changeup from former Nats prospect Wil Crowe just over right fielder Diego Castillo’s head for the game-winning hit.
"When I hit it, I felt like I hit it very well," Hernandez said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "At some point I was running, I felt that maybe he was going to be able to get to it. But when you're running in that situation, you're looking at the ball, any kind of base hit, it's always a possibility the outfielder can get to it or not. You just don't know. And once it landed, I was obviously very excited."
Rainey then closed it out in the ninth for his 11th save in 14 attempts, making a deserving winner out of Corbin, whose 12 strikeouts matched a career-high last achieved in Game 4 of the 2019 National League Championship Series.
"I've been feeling really good, and the results haven't ... some ups and downs," Corbin said. "But I felt today I was able to stay on the attack, use both sides of the plate. ... Just one of those nights where it seemed everything was clicking. And it just shows all the work we've been doing to try to get to this point."
Corbin’s night didn’t exactly get off to a swimming start. Ke’Bryan Hayes sent his very first pitch back up the middle for a leadoff single, then Bryan Reynolds worked a five-pitch walk to put the lefty in an immediate jam.
To his credit, he escaped, and without needing any help from his defense. Corbin struck out Oneil Cruz, Michael Chavis and Josh VanMeter in succession, and thus established the theme for the game: Clutch hits were going to be tough to come by. Extremely tough.
Corbin did it again in the third, putting two on with two out, but promptly striking out both Cruz and Chavis again to end the inning and leave the Pirates 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.
The Nationals, though, were no better in comparable situations. They did manage to get one early run home, though not via hit. With runners on second and third and one out in the bottom of the first, Nelson Cruz hit a chopper to third, allowing Juan Soto to scamper home with the game’s first run.
But there were countless opportunities for more, and the Nats refused to make the most of them. They went 0-for-2 with runners in scoring position in the first, somehow went 0-for-4 in the second – Cruz’s throwing error prolonged the inning – and then added two more in the fourth. That left them 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position tonight and a staggering 1-for-20 through their first 12 offensive innings of this series.
"I talked about this yesterday, and I'll say it again: A win is a win is a win. But we definitely need to get better with runners in scoring position," Martinez said. "I honestly believe they are trying too hard. When we have a chance to drive in runs, they try hard and they start chasing and not just going up there working good at-bats. We need to do that. It's talked about every day. It's worked on every day. Now we just need it to happen in the game."
Under normal circumstances, this would’ve spelled doom for the Nationals. Under these circumstances, it kept them in the game because their starter was so effective.
Corbin carried a shutout into the sixth before finally getting beat: Castillo drove a 3-2 fastball on the outside corner to right-center for a game-tying homer. Even so, the lefty bounced right back to get Jack Suwinski looking at a 95 mph fastball after that, giving him a season-high nine strikeouts.
And when he completed the seventh in short order and walked off the mound with his pitch count at 99, the guy with the ERA over 6.00 had convinced his manager to let him come back out for the eighth inning for only the second time this season. And then rewarded him for that show of faith.
"Hey, he's been one of the guys since he's been here," Martinez said. "And I've always felt that way, no matter what kind of outing he has. Without him, we wouldn't have done what we did in '19. I know he's struggled, but I really believe he's got the stuff to continue to be really good, and you saw it today."