CHICAGO - Just as the Nationals as a whole are rounding into shape and finally resembling a team capable of going on a sustained run, one of the most important members of their rotation - a bright spot even as the team was struggling early on - has turned into one of their biggest concerns.
Patrick Corbin, pitching like an All-Star only three weeks ago, has now turned in three consecutive sub-par outings, including tonight’s latest effort during a 7-5 loss to the White Sox that put a damper on what had been shaping up to be a strong road trip for the Nats.
“It’s been frustrating these last three starts or so, trying to figure out what I’m doing wrong,” the left-hander said. “I feel like we’re doing the right stuff in between. I’ve just got to keep working, continuing to get better and just make better pitches out there.”
With a grand slam surrendered in the bottom of the first and then three more runs surrendered before he finally departed in the sixth, Corbin dug his team into a sizeable hole. The Nationals, who actually led 2-0 only three batters into the game, never were able to claw all the way back into this one, despite some late drama.
And so they wound up with a disappointing, two-game split with Chicago. This after a disappointing, four-game split with San Diego to open this road trip. A lot of good things happened along the way, but the end result - a 3-3 record - did little in the big picture aside from removing days from the schedule.
The Nationals are playing better, no doubt. But they’ve given themselves little margin for error, and so each loss right now feels more significant, especially when they come with their formerly dominant lefty on the mound.
Corbin had been dazzling through much of the season’s first eight weeks. When he finished off a 116-pitch shutout of the Marlins on May 25, he owned a 5-2 record, a 2.85 ERA and reason to be considered one of the best free agent signings of the winter.
Things have taken a decided turn for the worse since then. Corbin was rocked for eight runs and 11 hits and didn’t make it out of the third inning in Cincinnati. He walked five and gave up five in five innings in San Diego. And now this seven-run start against a White Sox lineup that managed only one in Monday’s series opener against Aníbal Sánchez and the low-leverage portion of the Nationals bullpen.
Corbin attributed his struggles his last time out to poor mechanics that led to poor fastball command. He repeated that mantra tonight and insisted he’s dealing with no physical issues right now, despite his heavy workload.
“I talk to him a lot, too. And he says that has nothing to do with it,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He feels good. He’s just going out there and just missing his location.”
Corbin intended to work on perfecting his command between starts this week and was hopeful of a bounceback performance tonight. But it took only one inning to realize that wouldn’t be the case.
Staked to a 2-0 lead on Anthony Rendon’s 13th homer of the season, Corbin gave the two runs back and then two more during a four-batter stretch in the bottom of the first, all with two outs. José Abreu doubled. James McCann and Eloy Jiménez each drew a walk. And then Welington Castillo hammered a 2-0 fastball to center for a grand slam that flipped the script in a hurry.
Corbin wasn’t helped by plate umpire Chad Whitson, who squeezed him on the first two pitches of the at-bat and left him in a tough spot. But he didn’t do himself any favors, either, with his spotty command overall.
“The first inning, I got the first two outs and I felt pretty good,” he said. “I did walk two guys, but I felt they were competitive pitches. They had some good at-bats, laid off some sliders. I fell behind there 2-0 and gave up the big hit. But the walks have been hurting me, and falling behind guys.”
Corbin did settle down briefly and retired seven in a row at one point. But then he served up a 462-foot moonshot to Jiménez in the fourth and back-to-back doubles in the sixth, ending his night. He departed with a 4.11 ERA, a far cry from the All-Star-worthy number he sported only three weeks ago.
“We just have to go back to the drawing board and figure out what’s going on, and we’ll go from there,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “He’s done it for a long time, and he knows what he can do. It’s just one of those things where we have to nip it in the bud before it gets too far ahead.”
Down 7-2, the Nationals slogged their way through most of the game, with momentary reason for excitement, like Victor Robles’ “Plays of the Year” caliber catch in deep left-center in the bottom of the fifth. Then they did as they so often do and made things interesting late, even if they couldn’t complete the rally.
With a two-run double by Gomes in the top of the eighth, the Nats got back within striking distance. And then they loaded the bases with two outs, bringing former White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton to the plate with a chance to turn the entire game around.
Eaton took three straight balls from reliever Alex Colomé, but then took two strikes to load the count full. He then drove a ball to center field, but right at Leury García for the final out of the inning, leaving Eaton 2-for-28 with two outs and runners in scoring position.
Wouldn’t you know it, but Rendon would then lead off the ninth with a homer off Colomé, his second of the night and 14th of the season. But that’s all the Nationals would get, and so they were still left to contemplate a disappointing conclusion to a road trip that wasn’t quite as successful as they needed it to be.
“We still hit the ball hard,” Martinez said. “Couple line drive outs. And then all of sudden we started coming back to score some (runs). We just couldn’t finish it today.”