If the Nationals thought Josh Harrison’s bloop RBI single to right with the bases loaded tonight was a welcome sight, imagine what they were thinking moments later when Yan Gomes connected with a fastball from Tyler Anderson.
With one mighty swing, Gomes sent that pitch soaring into the left field stands and did what so few of his teammates have been able to do this season with the bases loaded: Drive in a bunch of runs.
“I feel like that’s just the last little bit we need to start clicking on offense,” Trea Turner said during a Zoom session with reporters several hours later. “And you saw it in that first inning. We got four hits, and we’re doing great, but you only get one run. And then Yan puts us over the top. It’s just that homer that we’re missing. And today we got it.”
Gomes’ grand slam capped a five-run first inning for a Nationals club that has sorely lacked those kinds of things this year. And handed a comfortable early lead for a change, Patrick Corbin took care of the rest, tossing 8 1/3 standout innings before handing it over to Justin Miller to close out a low-stress 8-1 victory on South Capitol Street.
It was precisely the kind of game that has been in short supply this season, a welcome one for manager Davey Martinez and company, no matter the level of competition. The Pirates may be 20 games under .500, but the 29-35 Nats can’t be picky about who they beat these days.
They’ve taken advantage of some subpar opposing lineups over the last week, winning three in a row and four of five against the Giants and Pirates, and offering up a hint of promise as the first official day of summer approaches and opportunities to make up ground in the National League East begin to dwindle.
“We’re almost like just missing a couple hits to break out games,” Gomes said. “We’re hitting the ball really well. We’re hitting the ball really hard. You don’t want to give the excuse of bad luck, but sometimes we’re getting it. But getting a couple games like today and (a 9-7 win at the Rays last week), it’s a big win for us. Hopefully, we can keep the momentum going on our side and keep playing like we’re playing.”
The Nats are starting to hit a bit more, but they’ve put together this mini-surge mostly with stellar pitching, despite the presence of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Daniel Hudson on the injured list. Over their last 11 games, the pitching staff has delivered a 2.18 ERA. Over their last six games, they’ve allowed a total of six runs.
“It’s been awesome,” Martinez said. “You know the one thing I look at the most: the free bases. We’re attacking hitters. We’re not giving up walks. We’re putting the ball in play, fairly early in the count. We need to continue that. As you can see, when we do that, the defense is playing well, we get quick outs and guys are going deeper in games.”
Which is exactly what happened tonight. Corbin did his part to continue the surge with his first start of eight or more innings since Aug. 21, 2019 (also against the Pirates), but he was aided by the 5-0 lead his teammates gave him in the first inning.
One of the team’s best rallies of the season started off in unspectacular fashion: a string of singles. Kyle Schwarber (once again leading off), Turner and Juan Soto each hit the ball and ran 90 feet to get the evening started and put pressure on Anderson, the Pirates’ lefty starter.
Not that anyone in the crowd of 16,886 felt comfortable yet, even with the bases loaded and nobody out. That’s been a nightmare scenario this season for the Nationals, who entered the game a staggering 8-for-56 with all three bases occupied. And when Ryan Zimmerman struck out, the groans were audible throughout the stands.
But Harrison made sure the inning wouldn’t be a complete washout, lofting a sinking liner to right that bounced in and out of a lunging Gregory Polanco’s glove for an RBI single.
Then came a legitimately big blow. Gomes was all over Anderson’s 1-2 fastball and drove it to left, clearing the bases and joining Harrison as the only Nats to hit a grand slam this season. This one raised the team’s batting average with the bases loaded to a robust .170, its OPS to .553.
“To do it in the first inning, that’s a great feeling,” Gomes said. “You’re giving your starting pitcher a five-spot, that’s always a good feeling. In those situations, I don’t know if you’re thinking grand slam, but you’re thinking hit it deep. Get at least one run in. So doing that is definitely a major plus.”
The five-run first, meanwhile, represented a larger offensive output than the Nationals got in eight of their last 11 games.
“It was a great inning,” Martinez said. “They put the ball in play. We got some hits. Yan comes up and hits the ball out of the park. That’s a good sign for us: Moving the baseball, everybody contributing. It was a fun night.”
They wouldn’t do much else at the plate the rest of the night, aside from Turner’s RBI triple (one of four hits on the game) in the fourth that extended the lead to 6-0, then two more tack-on runs in the eighth. They didn’t need it, because Corbin was as sharp as he’s been in two years.
The Pirates lineup isn’t all that imposing, but Corbin took advantage of it by going right after their hitters. He threw enough fastballs to get ahead in the count, then got outs with his slider (32-of-43 for strikes, 11 of them swings-and-misses) and kept his pitch count to a bare minimum.
“Sometimes you can make this game a lot more difficult than it already is,” said Corbin, who entered with an unsightly 6.21 ERA. “For me, I’m not up there fooling guys too much. They know I throw my slider, and I throw it a lot. Why not just continue to do that?”
Even when he surrendered a run in the seventh on a Phillip Evans double just past a diving Victor Robles, Corbin had plenty left in the tank. He got the chance to take a rare fourth at-bat in the bottom of the eighth and thus take the mound for the ninth with his pitch count at 99.
Corbin couldn’t finish off the sixth complete game of his career, though, getting pulled after back-to-back singles and his pitch count at 110. He departed to a standing ovation and then watched from the dugout as Miller recorded the final two outs in his first big league appearance in two years.
“I will say something: If there’s anybody that wanted Corbin to finish the game besides Corbin, it was me,” Martinez said. “I wanted him to finish. But when he got up to 110 pitches, which was the max, that was it. We’ve got to understand it’s a long season, and we’ve got a long way to go. We need him for the duration. But he was outstanding tonight.”