The Nationals got their customary production today from a lineup that has quietly turned into a legitimate strength but too often has been wasted by ineffective pitching performances, especially from those charged with taking the mound late in games.
Eight times since Aug. 25, this team had scored five or more runs. And proceeded to lose all eight games, the longest such streak in major league history.
So when they looked up at the scoreboard in Pittsburgh this afternoon and saw five runs on the board by the fourth inning, forgive the Nationals if they were less than 100 percent confident they’d be able to close this one out.
But thanks to a second straight quality start from Patrick Corbin and a gutsy relief appearance from Kyle Finnegan, they managed to snap that ignominious streak, emerge with a 6-2 victory and avoid a sweep at the hands of the Pirates.
“That, to me, is the key. When you get good starting pitching and we get ahead, ... we’ve got a really good chance to win the game,” manager Davey Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “But it all starts with starting pitching. I’ve said that many, many times. When your starting pitchers give us a chance to win and we’ve only got to get seven outs or eight outs from the bullpen, we’ve got a great opportunity to win games.”
It did get just a bit tenuous at one point, when Mason Thompson was asked to protect a four-run lead in the eighth and was pulled after allowing two of the three batters he faced to reach. Martinez summoned Finnegan, who had the previous three days off, to record the game’s final five outs. And the de facto closer responded to earn his ninth save, never letting another Pirates hitter to reach.
Corbin set the tone, though, with seven innings of two-run ball to pick up right where he left off his last time on the mound. The left-hander grinded out seven frames on 114 pitches Monday against the Mets, working around 11 hits. This time, he surrendered only four hits and two walks to the Pirates and departed with his pitch count at 101.
It’s far too late to salvage what has been a miserable season, but Corbin’s back-to-back showings provide a small glimmer of September hope for a pitcher who remains under contract for three more years and $82 million.
“The results have been better,” he said. “But like I’ve been saying, I’ve been feeling pretty good as of late. It just comes down to command, getting ahead of guys, and I thought that was the big key today.”
Perhaps most important this afternoon, Corbin took the lead his teammates gave him and never let the opposition whiff a comeback while he was on the mound. Up 5-2 in the fourth, he proceeded to retire the final 12 batters he faced.
“As a starter, you’re trying to pitch as deep as you (can),” the lefty said. “I gave up a couple runs. But we got the lead, held the lead and I think being able to get through seven innings ... I always pride myself going out there and trying to throw as many pitches as I can, getting over 100 every outing and try to pitch as deep as I can. That’s my job every fifth day.”
Though the top half of the Nationals lineup has been leading the way, the bottom half made its presence felt this afternoon, helping stake Corbin to a lead. Luis García got things started with a leadoff blast to right-center in the second, the 21-year-old’s ninth extra-base hit in 11 games.
“I think it’s definitely something that’s developed over time.” García said of his emerging power stroke via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I’ve worked hard in the offseason to get my swing right, worked a lot on staying on my back side more. And trying to stay toward the middle of the field as much as possible has helped me a lot. It’s something I’ve worked hard - and have to keep working hard - on.”
The big rally came in the fourth, all of it with two outs, starting with an unlikely blast from Alex Avila. The veteran catcher, making only his second start behind the plate in 2 1/2 months, launched a ball high above the 21-foot-tall Clemente Wall in right field for his first homer of the season and his second extra-base hit since returning from a long stint on the injured list with double calf strains.
And the Nats didn’t ease up. Adrián Sanchez, making a rare start at third base with Carter Kieboom getting a day off, doubled to right-center, then took third when Corbin singled to left to keep the rally going.
But the biggest hit of all came from the guy who has been occupying the No. 1 spot in the lineup for weeks and doesn’t appear likely to give it away anytime soon. Perhaps most surprising about Lane Thomas’ surprising performance to date is his power stroke. His three-run homer to right-center today not only gave the Nationals a 5-2 lead, it raised his slugging percentage in 26 games since joining the club to .548. (For comparison’s sake, Juan Soto is slugging .528 for the season.)
“We knew he had good bat-to-ball skills,” Martinez said of Thomas. “Pull power? Yeah. We thought he could drive some balls. But going the other way is awesome. It’s good to see.”
Soto, for his part, tripled to lead off the seventh on a day in which he again reached base four times and eventually scored the Nats’ sixth run. For weeks, that kind of offense has actually spelled doom for the Nats. Today, it finally spelled victory.
“I mean, we’ve been scoring some runs,” Corbin said. “We’ve been in a lot of these games, and it just seems something doesn’t go our way towards the end. But it’s a learning experience for a lot of these guys here. They all have the talent. They just have to go out there, be competitive, throw some quality pitches and attack the zone.”