With Opening Day approaching, Corbin delivers best start of spring

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Because they’ve been teased too many times the last three years by one or two strong outings, the Nationals have been careful not to make any bold declarations about Patrick Corbin returning to peak form.

Too many times since 2019, Corbin has followed up good starts with disastrous ones, leaving the beleaguered left-hander right back where he started.

So take this with a large grain of salt: The Nationals are really encouraged by Corbin right now, never more so than they were tonight after watching him toss six innings of one-run ball during a 3-2 exhibition win over the Mets.

“You know what, he’s come to spring training a different guy,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He’s got a lot of confidence. He knows that he can do this. He’s had success before. He wants to put everything that happened the last two years behind him and just move forward. … I love where he’s at right now.”

Corbin’s first two starts of the spring weren’t anything to write home about. But his last two – spread out over 10 days because he had another start rained out and had to get his work in throwing off a covered mound in the batting tunnel – have been noteworthy.

In those two starts against the Marlins and Mets, he has allowed two runs on eight hits over 10 innings. Most importantly, he has struck out eight without issuing a walk.

“I’m as confident as I’ve ever been,” he said. “I feel good. I’ve worked hard this offseason. It’s always exciting to have another season, maybe forget what happened last year and move forward. I’m looking forward to that.”

Corbin didn’t actually enjoy a clean inning tonight until the fifth, when he finally retired the side. But the damage throughout was minimal, the Mets’ only run scoring on a bloop, two-out single to center by Tommy Pham.

The results are nice, but the Nationals are most encouraged by the way Corbin looks. After allowing his arm slot to get too high in recent years, possibly compensating for a loss of velocity coming out of the 2020 pandemic shutdown, he has found the right angle to throw his two-seamer and slider where he’s been trying to throw them all along: down in the zone.

“I feel it mechanically,” he said. “I’m not really falling off as much. The arm slot feels like I’m repeating it really well. I’m keeping my head centered and not falling off as much. I’m more focused on where I’m throwing the pitch instead of trying to throw harder or stuff like that. Overall, I’m just pleased with all of it.”

It’s been a welcome sign for Nationals pitching coach Jim Hickey.

“That’s something that Hickey pounded on him from the winter on,” Martinez said. “We’ve got to make sure he doesn’t get too high. His slider was good. His changeup, he threw a few, but they were really effective. His two-seamer was really effective, both in and out. It was an impressive outing for him going into the season. He’s got one more, and then …”

Martinez cut himself off before finishing that sentence. He hasn’t made any official announcements about an Opening Day starter yet, but it’s not hard to do the math at this point. Corbin is slated to pitch again in five days against the Astros. Five days after that is March 30, when the Nats host the Braves in Game 1 of 162.

The idea of a pitcher coming off a 19-loss, 6.31-ERA season getting the ball on Opening Day may sound ludicrous. But given the Nationals’ lack of other established options and Corbin’s de facto position as the veteran member of this rotation, it probably makes the most sense.

And if it happens, it would be much appreciated by the lefty, who can’t thank his manager enough for standing by his side throughout these miserable last three years.

“It’s always special if you get the ball that day,” he said. “I just try to come in here, do the best I can and do my job. Davey’s always had his players’ back ever since I’ve been here. I think that’s why it’s so fun to play for him. He trusts everyone that goes out there, no matter when it is.”

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