Davey Martinez and his players have been insisting for several days now that the mood inside the Nationals clubhouse remains upbeat, that nobody is feeling a sense of dread two weeks into a season that has seen all manner of calamity befall this team. From a roster-ravaging COVID-19 outbreak to an ineffective string of pitching performances to a lineup that has been hit-or-miss to yet another injury for one of the staff’s most-important stalwarts, there has been plenty of valid reasons for Nats players and coaches to turn downtrodden.
And when word circulated about 45 minutes before first pitch tonight that Juan Soto had not only been scratched from the lineup but placed on the 10-day injured list with a left shoulder strain, it would’ve been perfectly appropriate for everyone to at least search out the panic button, if not emphatically slam it.
So imagine how encouraging it was to then see Patrick Corbin pull a complete 180 and turn in six spectacular innings of scoreless ball tonight against the Cardinals, offering renewed hope all may be OK after all. And then how discouraging it was to see Martinez pull his dominant starter after only 76 pitches and hand the ball to Tanner Rainey, who promptly gave the lead up and looked like he’d be the pitcher of record in a soul-crushing loss on South Capitol Street.
But then imagine how uplifting it was for the 8,418 in attendance and the 26 men in the home dugout to watch a wacky bottom of the eighth turn in the Nationals’ favor and somehow propel them to a captivating-if-bizarre 3-2 victory.
“I don’t think we’d be who we are if it wasn’t for all of that,” said shortstop Trea Turner, who has been part of some dramatic turnarounds before in these parts, during a postgame Zoom session. “We’ve got a lot of fighters in here and we don’t like to make excuses or complain. We kind of roll with the punches. Obviously, we’d like for it to be smooth and for everything to go our way all the time. But that’s not how it is in this game. It’s not how it is in life. We’ve just got to continue to roll with the punches and keep battling.”
Trailing by a run when the critical frame began, the Nats quickly put pressure on the Cardinals when Andrew Stevenson drew a walk and Josh Harrison was hit by a Giovanny Gallegos pitch. Up stepped Turner, now the No. 3 hitter with Soto out, and he proceeded to poke an RBI single down the first base line to tie the game.
“Davey told me I was hitting third like an hour before the game,” Turner said. “I was a little confused. But it’s just unfortunate. You don’t want to see people get hurt. You want to be healthy. But I think better early than late. Try to get this out of the way and get healthy. There’s a lot of baseball left. Keep plugging along.”
Following Turner’s single came the wackiness. He stole second, so the Cardinals brought their infield in against Josh Bell, who couldn’t elevate a fastball and grounded right to the shortstop for the first out. St. Louis manager Mike Shildt then intentionally walked Kyle Schwarber to load the bases and actually brought in utility man Edmundo Sosa to create a five-man infield against Starlin Castro. In the bottom of the eighth. Something his opponent in the other dugout had never seen before.
“That’s the first time,” Martinez said. “Actually, looking at everything, Starlin does have a high groundball rate. I’m pretty sure that’s why Shildty did it. But I was hoping Starlin would get the ball in the air right there.”
The unconventional strategy almost worked, because Castro (who has never seen a pitch he didn’t want to swing at) took strike three for out No. 2 and allowed the Cardinals defense to return to a conventional lineup. But Gallegos ruined it all by walking Yan Gomes on four pitches, forcing the go-ahead run home and improbably giving the Nationals the lead again.
Brad Hand then took care of business in the top of the ninth, stranding the tying runner on second, and the Nats had a hard-earned but much-needed victory at the end of an eventful evening.
“Just tried to stay aggressive,” Hand said when asked how he approached the situation after Yadier Molina’s one-out double. “Make quality pitches, obviously. Maybe pitch a little more fine. But just stay aggressive in the zone.”
It was quite a way to cap a wild day and night. The Soto news broke 45 minutes before game time, and put even more pressure - if that was possible - on Corbin to deliver a quality start and give his team a chance. It’s something the lefty hadn’t come close to doing in his first two appearances of the season, and few could be faulted for doubting it was possible entering tonight.
But Corbin indeed was up to the challenge, and in the process looked like a completely different pitcher.
Shunning his changeup for the most part, Corbin threw his fastball for strikes and his slider down, exactly as he needs to be successful. He worked fast, setting a good tempo. And he stayed ahead of hitters, issuing zero walks.
“You’ve just go back to your strengths,” the lefty said. “And everyone knows that’s my slider, (plus) fastball command. I just really wanted to simplify things, get back to it.”
It was a dramatic turnaround for Corbin, and in the big picture it bodes exceptionally well for Corbin and for the Nationals. But it nonetheless produced a controversial decision by the manager, who had to choose whether to let his previously struggling starter leave on a high note or try to press his luck.
Corbin’s pitch count after a quick top of the sixth was only 76. He was, by any measure, cruising. But he hadn’t come close to completing six innings yet this season, maxing out with 80 pitches over 4 1/3 innings in his debut before getting pulled after 68 tortured pitches in two innings his last time out.
And with his top three relievers all fresh, Martinez decided it made sense to make the move right then and there. Bell’s long-awaited first homer as a National - off a hanging, first-pitch curveball from Adam Wainwright - had given his team a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the sixth. It was now up to the back end of the bullpen to make that lead hold up.
“We had the bullpen set up the way we wanted,” Martinez said. “We had the matchups we wanted. The thing about it is, right now, you’ve got to think about longevity with (Corbin). We’ve already got two starters that we’re missing. It’s a long year. If this was September, then of course we’re going to send him back out. But we got him out on a positive note. ... For me, that was 100 percent the right thing to do, to get him out feeling good about himself.”
Though he felt strong enough to continue, Corbin understood his manager’s logic.
“I think just with only two (innings) the last game, and kind of how the season’s going with some of the guys here who have gotten hurt, it’s just being safe, making sure everything was good to go,” he said. “I felt fine. And we took the lead there. That was the call he (made), and I totally understand it.”
It took all of 21 pitches by Rainey, though, for the lead to disappear into thin air and give the Nats an entirely new reason to agonize after a two-week stretch that had already seen them have to cope with so many agonizing developments.
Fortunately, there was much baseball left to be played, and a happy ending for the home team after all.