It had all the trimmings of a classic pitchers’ duel, Justin Verlander and Patrick Corbin matching zeros in the run column while Verlander maintained a zero in the hits column as well.
For Verlander, though, this was par for the course. He just carried a no-hit bid into the eighth inning in his previous start.
For Corbin, this was uncharted territory for 2022. And 2020 and 2021, for that matter. The pressure rested squarely upon the left-hander’s shoulder to keep up with his more accomplished counterpart. And though he did best Verlander in the length of his start, Corbin came nowhere close to beating him in the only department that actually counts.
Three late homers by the Astros spoiled Corbin’s afternoon. And with the Nationals unable to push a run across in five innings against Verlander or the next four innings against Houston relievers, the end result was an 8-0 loss that didn’t really convey the type of ballgame this actually was.
"Look who we faced today," manager Davey Martinez said. "We've been swinging the bat well. Regardless of whether or not we score runs, we've been getting five, six, seven, eight hits a game. Today, that guy was good."
Corbin also was fantastic for 4 1/3 innings, retiring 13-of-16 batters and scattering three singles while keeping his pitch count to a minimum. That allowed him to stand toe-to-toe with Verlander, who carried a no-hitter into the fifth despite a surprisingly hefty pitch count of his own.
But those three late homers – Martin Maldonado in the fifth, Yuli Gurriel in the sixth, Chas McCormick in the seventh – undid everything Corbin did to that point and ultimately sent the Nationals to their 17th loss in their last 23 games.
"The results ended up not being in my favor, but I felt really good," Corbin said. "I'm just happy the way I felt, but tough to give up the couple of home runs there. But I felt good."
Verlander had plenty to do with that as well. The 39-year-old may still be in the early stages of his return from Tommy John surgery, but his performances this season suggest he’s as dominant as ever.
Verlander nearly no-hit the Twins five days ago, and he entered this start with a league-leading 1.55 ERA and 0.639 WHIP. And he picked up right where he left off against the Nationals, pitching around two walks in the first and one more in the third to keep the opposition both from scoring and from recording a hit.
"He's one of the best in the game, and he understands what he needs to do," Martinez said. "You watch how he pitches, his mechanics and his body are very well in tune. That's one thing I noticed: He uses his legs really well. He throws 97, but it doesn't really look like the ball is 97. That's a testament to what he does, and how he works on his mechanics."
The only thing holding Verlander back from the potential fourth no-hitter of his career (a total reached only by Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax in major league history) was his pitch count, which was clearly going to be a problem from the get-go. The Nats made him thrown 28 pitches in the bottom of the first, and by the time he completed the bottom of the fourth, his total already was up to 82.
Riley Adams put an end to any no-hit bid when he singled through the left side of the infield with one out in the fifth, and Alcides Escobar followed with a line drive single of his own. But with a chance to knock the opposing starter out and give themselves a chance to win, the Nationals saw César Hernández foul out and Juan Soto (who looked out of whack at the plate all afternoon) ground out weakly to first, allowing Verlander to end his afternoon with five scoreless innings on 107 pitches.
"Yesterday, we got 14 hits, and then today we weren't able to manage too many hits or score any runs. That's just the way it goes," Hernández said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "Justin was a little sporadic out there, and unfortunately we just weren't able to take advantage of that."
Strictly on paper, this looked like a lopsided pitching matchup going in. Those who have been watching Corbin of late, though, know he’s been a far different pitcher than he showed throughout 2021 and April 2022. And he continued to show that side of him for most of today’s outing, matching Verlander pitch for pitch.
Corbin got through the top of the first on seven pitches. He made it through three scoreless innings on 32 pitches. He ended the fourth with 47 pitches, scattering three singles without issuing any walks.
Then came the top of the fifth and the first of a couple hiccups. Corbin issued a one-out walk of McCormick, then after having the No. 8 hitter picked off watched as Josh Bell’s awkward throw sailed wide to second base, leaving McCormick safe.
"He's got to come get the ball right away when he sees (the runner) break, and just try to throw the ball to the base," Martinez said of Bell. "That guy is pretty fast. He rushed his throw a little bit."
Corbin’s very next pitch, a 93 mph fastball down the heart of the plate, was right in Maldonado’s wheelhouse. The veteran Houston catcher hammered it over the left field bullpen for a 2-0 lead, and suddenly the Nationals were facing an uphill climb.
That climb became steeper one inning later when Gurriel, who already had two hits on the afternoon, lofted a slider deep to left for the solo homer that extended the Astros’ lead to 3-0 and left Corbin’s chances of earning his first win of the season on life support.
One more homer, a two-run shot by McCormick, ended Corbin’s day and put the game out of reach. He wound up charged with five runs in six-plus innings. He entered the game with a 6.06 ERA (down considerably from 11.20 only four starts ago), got that number down to 5.35 at one point but emerged at the end of it all back up to 6.28.
"I'm not really discouraged about today," the lefty said. "Like I said, I felt good. I thought I made some really good pitches. Just a couple they hit out of the ballpark. Overall, you just look at the pitches I did make, and I thought I made some good ones."