Slam off Corbin in fifth seals storm-shortened loss (updated)

Anyone with a smartphone and a weather app knew what was coming. It was approaching from the west and it was going to reach Nationals Park at some point this evening. It was just a question of when. And what the status of the Nationals’ series opener against the Dodgers was going to be when it did arrive.

The answer: It arrived moments after the Nats went down in order in the bottom of the fifth, which came moments after Patrick Corbin gave up five runs in the top of the inning. That meant that not only had the Dodgers turned a 2-1 deficit into a 6-2 lead, they had done so just in time for the game to be considered official by Major League Baseball standards.

Nats-Park-Skittles-Tarp-Night-Sidebar.jpgAnd so, a short while after the front edge of a massive storm rolled through town and tornado warning alarms went off of thousands of fans’ phones, the Nationals officially lost a game they led when the fifth inning began but trailed when it ended.

“We had reports saying for us it was going to not happen ‘til a little while later,” manager Davey Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “And the next thing you know ... they said, hey it’s coming and we heard the sirens going off as we were going inside the clubhouse.”

There were some doubts all day whether this game would ever begin in the first place, with a forecast that didn’t look promising all evening and into Friday morning. But after one short cloudburst around 3 p.m., the skies cleared and the grounds crew was able to prepare the field for an on-time start at 7:05 p.m.

Corbin took the mound and began his outing, looking to hold down the defending champions’ potent lineup. And he did so with a makeshift infield behind him after both Trea Turner and Jordy Mercer were deemed unable to play after suffering injuries during Wednesday’s win over the Rays. (Turner remains day-to-day with swelling in his left middle finger and Mercer couldn’t get his right quadriceps muscle loose after it cramped the previous day.)

With only two other healthy middle infielders, Martinez had to go with Starlin Castro at shortstop, Josh Harrison at third base and the unlikeliest starting second baseman in club history: Alex Avila.

Yes, a 34-year-old backup catcher was playing second base for the first time in his career. Well, sort of. The Nationals had Avila handle that position when a right-handed hitter was batting for the Dodgers. When a left-handed hitter stepped to the plate, Avila and Harrison swapped spots, ensuring Harrison would be positioned to the batter’s pull side.

“We tried to put him in a position where J-Hay was going to catch most of the ground balls,” Martinez said. “But he went out there and made a couple plays.”

Indeed, he did. Avila wound up getting two balls hit to him, same as Harrison. And he handled both with aplomb, including a chopper to his left (while playing essentially the shortstop position in the shift) that he snagged and then fired a strike to Josh Bell at first base to retire Cody Bellinger.

“I figured like I showed with a couple balls today: If I was able to get to it, I was going to be able to make the play and be somewhat confident out there,” Avila said. “I’m not going to have the type of range like a middle infielder would, but I can catch the ball. I’ve got pretty good hands.”

Things went swimmingly for three innings, with Corbin posting zeroes and the Nationals taking a 1-0 lead on Kyle Schwarber’s first-pitch double in the bottom of the first and Juan Soto’s RBI single a few minutes later off Dodgers opener Victor González.

Then, an error on Harrison, who threw wide to Avila on a potential 5-4-3 double play and allowed Los Angeles to mount a rally in the top of the fourth. Albert Pujols’ opposite-field single drove in the tying run, but Corbin escaped the inning without any more damage.

When Castro lined a single to center to score Bell in the bottom of the fourth for his fifth RBI in the last two days, the Nationals had themselves a 2-1 lead again entering the fifth. And as the radar showed, the storm was now less than 30 minutes to the west.

So the pressure was on Corbin to keep the Dodgers from scoring in the fifth (and potentially final) inning. That immediately proved too difficult a task when A.J. Pollock blasted a leadoff homer to left, tying the game 2-2.

Five batters later, Max Muncy stepped up with the bases now loaded. And when Corbin grooved an 0-1 slider over the plate, the Dodgers cleanup hitter launched a no-doubt grand slam to right to put his team up four runs.

“Just a bad breaking ball to Muncy there, middle-middle,” Corbin said. “I was trying to throw a good one down and away, tried to get a swing and miss or possibly a ground ball. But coming in today, early on I felt great. Just a couple breaking balls that I left up there that they did some damage on.”

At that point, it was a race against the clock. For the Dodgers to get through the bottom of the fifth quickly. For the Nationals to try to prolong things and either mount a rally or, at worst, prevent the inning from ending the game from becoming official.

But when Harrison grounded into a double play and Soto grounded out to short, the fifth inning was over. And as sirens began to go off and lightning could be seen in the distance, umpires called for the tarp to be unfurled and players to leave the field.

“When you’re on the field, you don’t know what’s going on,” Martinez said. “I saw the umpire talking to (head groundskeeper) John Turnour, but we were just trying to play the game, play to win every inning. It’s unfortunate. I thought Corbin was throwing the ball really well, and then all of a sudden, he gives up the grand slam to Muncy.”

Moments later, the heavens opened up. And after waiting it out for more than an hour, the game was called, the Nationals left to stew over a shortened loss in a game they led not long before.

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