BALTIMORE – The Nationals have been this version of the Orioles before, a team loaded with young talent cruising toward a division title with visions of October glory on the horizon.
And the Orioles have been this version of the Nationals before, a team trying to climb the mountain again, enduring growing pains now in the hopes they’ll be rewarded someday in the near future.
Four years ago, they were at opposite ends of the spectrum, the Nats winning their long-awaited first World Series title while the Orioles suffered the second of three 100-loss seasons during their rebuild. Now the roles have been reversed.
With a 5-1 loss tonight at Camden Yards, the Nationals completed the 2023 version of the Battle of the Beltways with zero wins, four losses and only one total run scored. The only saving grace? By virtue of the Rays’ win in Boston, they weren't subjected to the sight of Baltimore celebrating its first division title in nine years in person. When it happens later this week, the Nats will be in Atlanta, playing their final series of the year.
They’ll need to win one of those final three games, by the way, to get to the 70-win mark, a symbolic goal that would represent significant improvement from last year’s 55-107 mark.
"There's a reason these guys are in first place," Patrick Corbin said of the Orioles. "They're a good team. They do the little things really well. It is a tough lineup. ... Hopefully, next year that can be us, where we're playing meaningful games at this point of the season."
As much as they wanted to win this game, the Nationals had to achieve a far simpler task first: Scoring a run against the Orioles, something they hadn’t done yet this season. Shut out in each of their first three head-to-head meetings, they entered tonight with a streak of 32 consecutive scoreless innings vs. Baltimore, a streak that dated all the way back to Sept. 14, 2022.
The streak would extend to 36 innings with four more zeros to begin tonight’s game, the Nats putting only one of their first 14 batters on base vs. Grayson Rodriguez. And then, at last, a breakthrough in the top of the fifth. Dominic Smith doubled down the right field line, Jake Alu singled to left and the number 1 was posted in the visitors’ run column on the Camden Yards scoreboard.
"I think it starts with pitching," Smith said. "They pitched well against us all year. It's probably a big reason why they're leading their division right now. They made it tough on us."
Alas, the Nationals needed more than one run to have a shot at beating the Orioles for the first time this year, because the home team scored runs in bunches against Corbin.
It began in the bottom of the third, in a fashion all too familiar. Corbin opened the frame by walking Austin Hays, one of four free passes he issued tonight. He then followed that by grooving a 1-2 fastball to Adley Rutschman, who launched it to left-center for a two-run homer and a 2-0 lead.
The Alu RBI single brought the Nationals to within a run, but Corbin responded by immediately giving up two more in a bottom of the fifth that ended his season and could’ve been a lot worse. The inning included three walks (one with the bases loaded), a passed ball on Keibert Ruiz, a steal of third, two singles and an impressive athletic play by Corbin on a little roller down the third base line that saved one run but could not save his night.
Davey Martinez strolled to the mound with the bases loaded and two out and asked for the ball from Corbin, who handed it over. He needed to go seven innings and allow two earned runs to finish the season with an ERA under 5.00 for the first time since 2020. He wound up allowing four earned runs in only 4 2/3 innings, leaving his 2023 ERA forever set at 5.20.
"I still feel confident in my abilities," Corbin said. "I'm healthy. I'm good to end the season, and I think everyone here is looking forward to some time off and then getting ready to go again."
That 5.20 ERA is still more than a run better than the left-hander’s 6.31 mark from last season. But nobody’s going to get too excited about a 10-15 record and 5.20 ERA in the fifth year of a six-year, $140 million contract, the expiration of which will finally come 12 months from now.
"You know, the numbers don't indicate that he did well, but he's got more wins than a lot of other starting pitchers in the major leagues," Martinez said. "I could give him the ball every five days. He works really hard. He works in between his starts. The guy's going to eat innings for you. I think this winter, he needs to come up with an identity for him, what he wants to do moving forward."