The Nationals aren’t going to amount to much this season if Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber and Patrick Corbin aren’t consistently contributing to the process. They all know that, and it’s why manager Davey Martinez isn’t going to give up on any of them anytime soon.
The roster general manager Mike Rizzo built this winter included Bell, Schwarber and Corbin in prominent positions, the first two in the heart of his lineup and the latter in the heart of his rotation. So the early-season struggles for all three played a real role in the club’s sub-.500 record.
A resurgence, of course, would go a long way toward getting the Nationals back in the mix in the National League East. Which made today’s series finale against the Phillies extra encouraging for anyone wearing a curly W cap.
Behind first-inning homers from both Schwarber and Bell and seven standout innings from Corbin, the Nats took an early lead on the Phillies and held on to win 5-1 to salvage one game in this series and head out of town feeling a little better about themselves.
“We talk about it all the time: We get that lead early, we’re pretty good when that happens,” Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “Our big boys came up, they swung the bat, hit a couple home runs. We tacked on another run late. It was a good day for us.”
Yes, there are still major issues to be sorted out. But as they head west to face the Diamondbacks and Cubs with a 14-19 record, the Nationals can breathe a little easier knowing they’re capable of getting big hits from their two biggest offseason acquisitions, and they’re capable of getting dominant performances from their previously erratic No. 3 starter.
“There’s going to be times where me and J.B. are 0-for-4, whatever it is. The other guys are going to pick us up,” Schwarber said. “There’s going to be times when Juan (Soto) is 0-for-4, and somebody else is going to pick him up. ... Other guys are going to pick each other up. And when this thing hits on the same cylinder, I mean, watch out. It’s going to be fun to watch.”
Martinez has harped for weeks on the importance of taking an early lead, knowing well the Nationals were 10-3 this season when scoring first but 3-16 when they don’t. So when the Phillies jumped ahead 1-0 only four batters into the game, on a less-than-perfect defensive play, the manager surely couldn’t have been pleased.
The run scored as the result of a double-steal, with Bryce Harper taking off from first and drawing a pickoff throw by Corbin. As soon as the ball left Corbin’s hand, Andrew McCutchen took off from third, hoping to beat Bell’s throw to the plate. Which he did, thanks in part to Bell’s throw coming in high and making for a tougher catch-and-tag by Yan Gomes.
“I kind of rushed it a little bit,” Bell said. “With McCutchen’s speed, I had to be a little bit quick. If I just stay on my legs there and make a decent enough throw, Yan’s a good enough catcher to tag him out.”
Originally ruled by the official scorer as a caught stealing and an error on Bell but later changed to a successful stolen base, the play highlighted the Nationals’ early-game struggles and Bell’s shaky throwing arm, the last thing the slumping slugger needed before he even got a chance to step to the plate today.
No worries, because Bell more than made up for the poor throw a short while later with maybe his best swing of the season, to cap one of the Nationals’ best offensive innings of the season.
It happened because of two big swings by the roster’s two biggest swingers who haven’t been connecting enough over the last month. The Nats know they aren’t going anywhere without Schwarber and Bell producing, so today’s bottom of the first was as encouraging a development on that front as we’ve seen in some time.
Schwarber’s two-run homer went to the opposite field, the first of his four homers to travel that way. He did as he often says he tries to do, going with a fastball on the outer edge and driving it to left field to put the Nationals on the board and give them the lead.
“It was something that I’ve done before in the past, where I just don’t pull balls. I go opposite field,” Schwarber said. “It was nice to hit get that outer-third pitch there, take it the other way and go into the stands.”
A few minutes later, Bell did his damage the old-fashioned way: Destroying a breaking ball and hitting it as far as he could to the pull side. The 445-foot blast landed in the second deck in right-center and surely felt cathartic for Bell, who entered the afternoon sporting a .133 batting average.
“That was by far the best swing of the year,” said Bell, who admitted he stayed up extra late Wednesday night watching video and reported back to the park this morning on only three hours of sleep. “Most connected, most behind it, best ball flight, for sure. Hopefully more to come.”
The Nats may not technically have scored first, but they nonetheless ended the first inning with a 4-1 lead, and that was good enough. Especially with Corbin looking as sharp as he has in a long time.
The lefty wasn’t entirely to blame for the first inning run, and he did nothing the rest of the afternoon to give the Phillies a chance at scoring another. Only three more batters reached against him, all on singles, none of them advancing beyond first base.
Encouraging signs were everywhere for Corbin. His velocity was up a couple notches, his fastball averaging 93 mph and topping out at 95 mph for the first time this year. His slider also had an uptick in velocity, averaging 81 mph, and had bite to it, leading to 13 swings and misses.
“His velocity is back,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi told reporters. “His velocity came back his last start. That was the biggest difference. In my pregame, I was saying I’m not sure which one we’re going to get: The one that’s throwing 89, or the one that’s throwing 91-94. When it gets to 94 consistently, everything gets better. His slider gets better. His changeup gets better. And that’s what he did.”
Perhaps most importantly, Corbin did not issue a walk for the third time in his last five starts, to go along with nine strikeouts. Thus did he further distance himself from his shockingly ragged start to the season. After getting tagged for 16 runs in his first two outings, he has posted a 3.00 ERA over his last five.
“Mechanically, things were just a little off early on,” Corbin said. “Now my body feels great, I’m starting to use my legs. I’m kind of feeling like my old self.”