Once was perhaps cause for concern but potentially forgivable. Twice is cause for alarm and potentially disastrous for a Nationals club that is built to win behind a dominant rotation but has now seen two of its top three starters get rocked in the last week, one of them twice.
Stephen Strasburg, for the moment, isn’t the Nats’ greatest concern. Patrick Corbin is after another cringe-inducing start tonight in which the left-hander was battered for 10 runs in only two innings during a 11-6 loss to the Diamondbacks that couldn’t have made for an enjoyable experience for a paid crowd of 6,666 on a surprisingly cold mid-April evening on South Capitol Street.
Corbin showed neither command (only 35 of 63 pitches for strikes) nor velocity (his fastball averaged 90.4 mph) for the second straight time to begin the season, and that combination on the heels of a disappointing 2020 campaign from the $140 million lefty can’t leave a good feeling in club officials’ stomachs.
Now add Strasburg’s massive struggles Tuesday night in St. Louis to the mix, and the Nationals are facing a real issue with two-fifths of a rotation that is supposed to once again lead the way.
“As you guys know, our starting pitching has been the backbone here.” manager Davey Martinez said during a postgame Zoom session with reporters that was about 20 minutes later than normal. “So we’ve got to get these guys right.”
The opener of a seven-game homestand, with crowd capacity increased to 25 percent, should’ve made for an upbeat Jackie Robinson Night at the ballpark. But a bundled-up crowd had barely settled in before things took a hard turn south.
It would be one thing if Corbin was coming off a decent outing, but his 2021 debut was troubling in its own right. The lefty couldn’t locate his fastball Saturday night in Los Angeles and was done in by a five-run bottom of the second to get his season off on a sour note.
The Nationals hoped it was merely a byproduct of Corbin’s unexpected delay to begin the season after he landed on the COVID-19-related injury list. Tonight’s start would tell them if that was the case or not.
So imagine how discouraged everyone was when this appearance got off to an even worse start than the last one, and only devolved from there.
Three batters into the game, the Nationals were down 2-0 and Corbin had surrendered two home runs: an opposite-field shot by Carson Kelly off a 92 mph fastball, then a blast to left by Eduardo Escobar on a changeup. At least those were mistakes within the strike zone. Unlike the rest of the first inning, which saw Corbin issues two walks and plunk No. 8 hitter Andrew Young, putting his team in a 3-0 hole.
“He wasn’t sharp,” Martinez said. “It’s not like him to hit batters, and his location was bad. I can’t really pinpoint anything right now on him. His mechanics look like they’re OK, so we’re just going to have to dig in a little deeper.”
To their credit, the Nats lineup responded with a big rally in the bottom of the first, each of their first three batters ripping lasers off Diamondbacks starter Merrill Kelly that registered at least 100 mph off the bat. Josh Bell’s RBI double over Young’s head in left field got them on the board, then a bloop single by red-hot Josh Harrison and the first homer of the season by Starlin Castro completed the rally and gave the Nationals an improbable 4-3 lead at the end of a wild first inning.
But handed that lifeboat, Corbin promptly stuck a knife in it and let all the air out. During a ghastly top of the second that saw Arizona bat around again and score seven more runs, he watched Harrison boot a potential double play grounder, then walked in a run, then plunked Wyatt Mathison with the bases loaded, then served up a grand slam to Young that left the crowd booing with vigor.
“That was great to get the lead back there after I struggled in the first,” he said. “Then it’s just the same thing happened again. ... It’s frustrating. To go two innings as a starter, I’m more disappointed (in that). Our bullpen, I was hoping to give them some length today, give them a break. Some of those guys have thrown a lot. You hate doing that as a starter, going out there and not being able to do your job.”
Corbin wouldn’t get a chance to return for the top of the third to try to figure things out. He’ll have to wait until his next start, presumably Tuesday night against the Cardinals, to figure out how to right his wayward ship.
“Easier said than done,” he said. “You try to forget about these. But like I said, I feel all right. I can’t think of something off the top of my head. You just get back to the simple things: commanding the strike zone, throwing quality pitches, getting ahead of guys, things like that. Stick to my strengths.”
For now, Corbin - like Strasburg - will get the chance to take the mound again and prove he can rediscover his lost form.
“As long as these guys are healthy, these are two guys that we lean on and we count on,” Martinez said. “And I think it’s just a matter of time. We’ve been slowed by a lot of different things. One is Strasburg missed a lot of time (last season). He’s got to come back. And Corbin started out on the COVID IL, so we’ve got to get him back. I truly believe these guys will get back to their form here shortly, and we’ll get them rolling again.”