On Opening Day, Patrick Corbin suffered through some defensive errors behind him, some bad luck on weak contact by Braves hitters and some poor pitches on his own part. He couldn’t retire the only batter he faced in the fourth while giving up four runs (two earned) and throwing 85 pitches.
In today’s matinee finale against the Rays, he was more efficient with his pitches but at times not all that effective, with the results more of the same in a 7-2 loss to complete a three-game sweep in front of 13,836 fans at Nationals Park.
Corbin kept his pitch count down throughout most of the outing, much better than his first start on Thursday. He had only thrown 69 pitches and 47 strikes while keeping it a 3-2 game through five innings. And he was getting ahead of hitters at a better rate, something he also struggled with against the Braves. Of the 21 hitters he faced through five frames, he got ahead of 12 of them to limit the Rays to six hits and three runs.
But in the sixth he ran into some classic Corbin issues. One out away from a quality start and possibly allowing himself to come out for another inning, he gave up a home run to Harold Ramírez after getting ahead 0-1. The 80-mph slider was just below the zone for the Rays designated hitter to golf over the center field fence to end a streak of 11 consecutive retired batters.
After a single by Manuel Margot, it was time for some of the usual bad luck to strike Corbin again. Victor Robles, who had just made a nice diving grab to rob Isaac Paredes of a leadoff hit, lost Taylor Walls’ fly ball to the Sun Monster, resulting in an RBI double. Then Jose Siri hit an RBI single to right, advanced to second on a throwing error by Lane Thomas and was put out at third on a heads up play by Jeimer Candelario and CJ Abrams.
“Unfortunately, the sun is an element you can't fight," Robles said of the lost sun ball, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "It's going to be there no matter what. Sometimes the ball goes in there, it gets lost in there and all I can sort of fight it and hopefully, I see it when it comes out of there. But sometimes you can't and that's all I can do.”
The damage was done. Just like on Opening Day, the Nationals had kept the game close, only to see the Rays blow it open late.
“I think overall I made some good pitches," Corbin said after the game. "They got some hits and, unfortunately, that sun ball there kept that inning going. But like I said, they're a good team. I thought I made some decent pitches there that got hit. But I think overall, the slider was fairly good, got some swings and misses on it. Better command today than, I think, last game. But just a tough series for us overall. Try to improve, get better at some of these other things and move on.”
Corbin finished six innings having given up 10 hits, six runs, two home runs and 12 hard-hit balls. On the bright side, he didn’t walk any batters and struck out three on 92 pitches, 63 strikes.
“I thought Patrick actually was having a pretty good outing," manager Davey Martinez said. "Lost the ball in the sun and after that, it just kind of fell apart. So, got to play better. We got to hit. We got to start hitting with guys on base. We had an opportunity right there to blow the game open, come back and bases loaded, no outs and couldn't get a run. So we gotta start driving in runs.”
As has been the case through the first five games of the season, the offense couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities it gave itself throughout the course of the game.
A right-handed-heavy lineup against the Rays’ Shane McClanahan did have some success against the fourth lefty starter they’ve faced in the first six games of the year. The southpaw got his strikeouts, six of them to be exact, but the Nationals also recorded five hits and four walks against one of the better starters in the American League. They just didn’t slug too much against him.
“The biggest thing was we were trying to get him in the strike zone and we accepted our walks early. We hit the balls hard," Davey Martinez said. "Like I said, that was a critical moment right there and we just couldn't get any runs in a particular moment. So when that happens and you're facing a guy like him, you're talking about a guy who's in the top five or six in the Cy Young (voting) right? So it's tough, but I thought we handled our at-bats well until that moment.”
Through McClanahan’s six innings, the Nationals were able to get the leadoff man aboard four times. But of their five hits, only two of them went for extra bases and only two drove in runs.
Stone Garrett, making his Nats debut as the designated hitter, drew a two-out walk in the second and hustled around to score on Robles’ double to left field. That tied the game at 1-1 after the Rays took an early lead in the top of the inning on Siri’s sac fly.
“Just getting something over the middle of the plate and just competing," Garrett said of his approach against McClanahan. "Waiting for my pitch and don't chase anything out of the zone."
The Nationals’ best chance, however, came in the fourth. Three straight hits by Joey Meneses (starting at first base for the first time this season), Keibert Ruiz and Michael Chavis (back at second base in place of Luis García) off McClanahan made it 3-2 after a two-run shot by Wander Franco in the top of the inning gave the Rays the lead right back.
Another single by Garrett gave the Nats a golden opportunity to take the lead with the bases loaded and none out. But a Robles (while up 3-1 in the count) flyout and back-to-back strikeouts by Abrams and Thomas wasted it.
“The pressure's on the pitcher. It's not on you, right?" Davey Martinez said of the wasted opportunity. "You go up there and make him throw strikes like you've been doing and try to stay in the middle field. That's something that we got to learn. We got young hitters, we got young guys, and I think sometimes they get overly aggressive. Sometimes we start chasing. All of a sudden we get the count in our favor, and they really feel like, 'Oh man, now I can really hit the ball over the fence.' No, stay within yourself and just try to put the ball in play and get on base for the next guy. We're doing better at that. But now all of a sudden when we got guys on base, now we got to start driving in the runs.”
The Nationals only had two baserunners from that point on, not nearly enough while facing a five-run deficit. They finished 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position and left eight on base. And they were called for their first offensive pitch clock violation when Ildemaro Vargas (pinch-hitting for Chavis in the ninth) hit a line drive foul down the first-base line (with a nice snag by the ball boy) and was called for an automatic strike three for not getting back in the batter’s box in time.
Thaddeus Ward, relieving Corbin in the seventh, gave up an RBI single to Randy Arozarena after back-to-back one-out walks. But the Rule 5 draft pick completed two innings before Anthony Banda pitched the ninth.
The Nationals fell to 1-5 while the Rays remained undefeated on the young season. Aside from Saturday’s 7-1 loss to the Braves, the Nats have been within striking distance in all of their games. But the lack of clutch hitting and untimely poor pitching continue to plague them.
Maybe the upcoming four-game series at Coors Field can at least get the bats going.
“We're gonna get better and there's no doubt about that," the skipper said. "There's a lot of baseball left, so I'm not going to put any onus on ... of course I want to win every day, believe me, but I'm not gonna put any onus on the first week of the season. I'm not. But we got to get better. We got to get better quick if we want to compete here. We got to play together as a team and get better. Just play good team baseball and that'll happen. We get to go on the road now, get on a plane and go face Colorado in their home opener and just try to win tomorrow.”