Only two weeks in, the Nationals’ lineup has established an encouraging trend for late-game heroics, often making up for the club’s bullpen woes. Alas, they can’t always count on their bats to do the job their relief corps cannot. Especially when they’ve already done it once on a given night.
It happened tonight during a 6-3, 10-inning loss to the Pirates that was as discouraging as any to date this season. The Nationals wasted a brilliant performance by Patrick Corbin. They wasted Anthony Rendon’s two homers, the second of which made up for tonight’s eighth-inning meltdown.
They wasted it all because Matt Grace and Justin Miller, asked to keep the game tied in the top of the 10th, could not do it. Grace gave up a leadoff double and then was charged with a throwing error on a bunt play. Miller then gave up the three-run homer to pinch-hitter Colin Moran that proved the difference and left a rain-soaked crowd of 27,084 booing with displeasure.
It was the fourth home run Miller surrendered during a 10-batter stretch on the heels of four impressive appearances to begin his season. And it was the latest black mark on a Nationals bullpen that is covered head-to-toe in them only 12 games into the season.
Things had seemingly begun to stabilize during a 4-2 road trip through New York and Philadelphia, but then a familiar storyline returned in the opener of a six-game homestand against the first non-division opponents of 2019.
Handed a 2-1 lead thanks to Corbin’s dominant start that featured 11 strikeouts in seven innings, the Nationals bullpen gave it right back and then some during yet another harrowing eighth. Tony Sipp, returning to the mound two days after departing with shoulder stiffness, allowed a pair of singles sandwiched around a flyout. Compounding matters, Adam Eaton airmailed an unnecessary throw from right field to third base on the second single, allowing the go-ahead runner to move into scoring position.
And that proved costly moments later when Starling Marte ripped a single past a diving Rendon at third base, bringing home both runners to give the Pirates the lead and leave Kyle Barraclough 0-for-7 in attempting to strand inherited runners this season.
So add these two to the growing tally, and the Nationals pitching staff has now given up a staggering 20 runs in the eighth inning only 12 games into the campaign.
Just when all hope looked lost, though, Rendon ensured the game would not be decided by the latest eighth-inning meltdown. He led off the bottom of the inning by lofting a pitch from Pirates setup man Keona Kela into the flower bed just beyond the left field wall, his second homer of the game and sixth of the season, none bigger so far than this one.
The Nationals had a chance to win it in regulation when Howie Kendrick ripped a one-out double to left. But they couldn’t bring him home, with Eaton striking out to send the game to extras.
Under a threatening forecast, the game got underway in dry conditions but that didn’t last long. The rain came and went in waves, though never enough to force the teams off the field or the tarp to be unfurled.
Neither starter seemed particularly bothered by the weather. Each got down to business from the get-go, though it was Corbin who made the first mistake. His 0-1 fastball to Josh Bell in the top of the second was promptly launched to left field to give the Pirates the early 1-0 lead, the fourth homer Corbin allowed in his first 13 innings of the season.
Nothing to worry about, though, because the lefty got right back on track. Turning to his bread-and-butter slider, he began inducing swings and misses with extreme regularity, recording six strikeouts through three innings, all of them swinging.
Corbin showed off a nice pickoff move to get Marte breaking from first base too soon. He showed off his fielding skills. And for good measure he showed off his bat as well.
The Nationals as a team produced only three hits through six innings against Trevor Williams, and two of those came off Corbin’s bat. His first came in a big spot, with two on and two out in the second. Corbin sliced a line drive into shallow left field, and Ryan Zimmerman came storming around third to score the Nats’ first run of the night.
Corbin’s second hit - another two-out single - didn’t come with anyone on base. But the Nationals had already staked him to a lead when Rendon blasted his latest home run, a no-doubter to left to add to his stellar opening two weeks.
Add his later blast, and Rendon now has six homers on the season. He’s got 16 RBIs. He has an 11-game hitting streak. He has a nine-game extra-base hit streak, tied with Zimmerman for the club record.