Another encouraging start for Corbin, but Nats lose (updated)

We don’t know at this point if Patrick Corbin will pitch again this season. Davey Martinez is still contemplating whether to send him back to the mound for Sunday’s finale against the Red Sox, or whether to let tonight’s outing in Colorado serve as his closing act on a dismal 2021.

If, however, this was it for Corbin this season, he can head home for the winter with at least some reason to feel better about things. His final numbers were unsalvageable, but the left-hander did put together perhaps his best stretch in a long time over the last three weeks.

Tonight’s six innings of two-run ball weren’t enough to carry the Nationals, who still lost 3-1 to the Rockies. But under the circumstances, it’s exactly what Martinez was hoping for from his veteran starter.

Thumbnail image for Corbin-Delivers-Gray-NLDS-Sidebar.jpg“He threw the ball really well,” the manager said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “He made just one mistake, but I thought he threw the ball really, really well tonight.”

If only Corbin’s teammates had held up their end of the bargain and supplied him with some run support. Instead, the Nats labored all night to push across runs in the best hitter’s park in America, despite countless opportunities.

Their lone run scored not via hit, but via Lane Thomas’ bases-loaded walk in the top of the seventh, a quality plate appearance that saw the leadoff man battle back from an 0-2 count to force in a run. Otherwise, they were shut out, going 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, grounding into four double plays.

Even Juan Soto was rendered helpless by Rockies starter Kyle Freeland and his bullpen. The 22-year-old potential batting champion and league MVP had a rare 0-for-4 night, failing to reach base and seeing his batting average drop to .318 while former teammate Trea Turner was raising his to .325 in Los Angeles.

“Sometimes you come here to Colorado, and you know how the ball travels here, and you try to do a little too much,” Martinez said. “As I always tell him: Just try to hit the ball, stay in the middle of the field, don’t try to hit the ball in the air. Just hit the ball hard, and the ball will go. You don’t have to do anything different; the ball will travel here.”

But even in losing for the 93rd time this season, the Nationals couldn’t help but be encouraged by what they saw from Corbin in either his penultimate or ultimate start of 2021.

As bad as his season as a whole has been, Corbin did come into tonight’s start on a bit of a roll. Three of his last outings were quality starts, including 6 2/3 innings of scoreless ball in Cincinnati last week. And when he got to work tonight, he appeared poised to continue the streak.

Corbin struck out three batters in the bottom of the first, all on sliders, the only batter to reach doing so when Yadiel Hernandez and Alcides Escobar seemed to lose a shallow fly ball to left in the twilight. The slider would be his go-to pitch throughout, resembling the best version of itself and producing 18 swings-and-misses.

Eight of Corbin’s nine strikeouts came on sliders, so there was ample reason for the left-hander and the visitors’ dugout to be encouraged by these results.

“I feel good about those last two (starts), where I was able to throw it,” he said. “I just kind of felt back to normal a little bit, being able to use that slider, command my fastball to both sides of the plate.”

There were a couple of blips along the way, though, each leading to a single run. With two on and one out in the fourth, Corbin gave up an RBI double to Ryan McMahon off a first-pitch fastball. One inning later, he left a slider up to Trevor Story and watched the ball soar some 475 feet to center field for the longest of his league-leading 37 homers surrendered this season.

(That’s the most home runs given up by anyone who pitched exclusively in the National League since the Reds’ Bronson Arroyo in 2011.)

“You saw where the balls were,” Martinez said. “The balls have been up. When he gets the ball down, that doesn’t happen. He understands that he’s got to pitch down, keep the ball down. Anything elevated gets hit hard.”

Still, it’s hard to find much fault with six innings of two-run ball, especially in that ballpark. Especially when considering Corbin’s season in totality.

The question now: Was that his final appearance on the mound until 2022, or will there be one more opportunity in Game 162?

“I think I’ll probably talk to (Martinez) tomorrow, see how I feel,” Corbin said. “Coming off of last year, where I made only 12 starts, to 30-plus starts this season was a big jump. And obviously, we’re not where we want to be at this point in the season. But I do feel good, and I think the most important thing is to make sure I’m 100 percent coming into next season.”

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