Patrick Corbin struck out Amed Rosario looking, a sinker on his 113th pitch, and made his final exit of the season to the hum of fake crowd noise. It took 32 slow steps to get from the mound to the dugout, tapping outstretched hands with his glove as he did. He had a short talk with Manager Dave Martinez, tipped his hat off his head — a standard for the end of his starts — then disappeared down the tunnel, bound for the clubhouse, a shower and soon an early winter.
The Washington Nationals later lost to the New York Mets, 3-2, in their first game after being officially eliminated from playoff contention. The Nationals are 23-34 and angling toward their worst winning percentage since 2009. That turned this weekend into a chance to avoid injury, take stock for the future and tie up loose ends. Corbin, one of the Nationals’ front-line starters, finished his year by going seven innings, allowing 10 hits, three walks and striking out three.
It was a fitting illustration of his rocky season.
“Yeah, this is just such a strange season,” Corbin said. “I was just starting to feel good here, or at least feeling better, trying to build up and it’s my last start of the year. Obviously, I think a lot of us would have wanted things to have gone differently.”
This has been a well-documented slog for pitchers. Many, including Stephen Strasburg, suffered season-ending injuries early in the season. Many others never found their usual velocity, stunted by three weeks of summer training that followed a four-month break. Frequent schedule changes put a premium on rhythm. And the health protocols — each pitcher has their own bag of balls, their own rosin bag, their own shampoo bottle — jumbled each routine.
Pitchers are noted creatures of habit. Max Scherzer, for example, throws each bullpen session in full uniform. Aníbal Sánchez likes to choose the clubhouse music on his start days. Corbin’s quirks are subtler, making him pass as easygoing. But his results reflect the trials of this year.
Corbin (2-7) leads the league in walks and hits per inning pitched, a stat no one wants on their résumé. He’s yielded a league-high 85 hits in 11 starts. Average that across 33 outings, a more typical season, and he would pass his career-worst mark — 208 in 2017 — by more than 20 hits. Of course, the math’s not that simple. A 162-game schedule offers the chance of a turnaround or three. A 60-game schedule doesn’t.
So when asked about Corbin’s summer, and the crooked number of base-runners, Martinez was lightly analytical. He saw no cause for alarm.
“He struggled with his location at times, he’s mentioned that,” Martinez said Thursday afternoon. “He says his sinker sometimes didn’t sink, it just flattened out when trying to go in. This is something that he knows going into the next year. He’s going to be fine.”
Martinez then joked that Corbin won’t come out of the bullpen this series. It was a nod back to last fall, when Corbin made three starts and five relief appearances in the World Series run. The last one, on Oct. 30, 2019, included three scoreless innings in a Game 7 win over the Houston Astros. It all made a six-year, $140 million contract, signed the previous December, seem like a prudent deal.
He threw 421 pitches in the extra month. He taxed his arm into the last hours of the baseball calendar. He, maybe more than anyone, needed a break and normal ramp up to 2020. Then he basically got the opposite.
“Maybe all year the ball just wasn’t coming out as it normally does,” Corbin said Thursday night. “I’m not really sure why that was. So I just want to go into next year, hopefully a normal season where you’re able to build up, get your arm strength there and be ready to make 33 starts.”
In turn, Corbin posted a 4.66 ERA in 65 ⅔ total innings, his highest in a half decade. It was lowered a hair by Thursday’s start. Corbin danced around a double and walk in the first, stranding two to keep pace with rookie David Peterson. Peterson let the Nationals nudge ahead in the fourth, once Josh Harrison singled in Kurt Suzuki. The Nationals cut the deficit in half when Yadiel Hernandez singled in Andrew Stevenson against Edwin Diaz in the ninth.
But the Mets punched hits off Corbin in the first, second, third, fifth, sixth and seventh, continuing the season-long trend of him permitting too much contract. And the fifth inning showed what Martinez had explained.
First, Corbin allowed a leadoff single to Guillermo Heredia on a high-and-outside sinker. Next, a batter later, he went ahead 2-0 against Robinson Chirinos, threw three straight balls and tried to beat Chirinos with a low-and-outside sinker. But he left it a bit up, about thigh-high, and Chirinos lifted a homer over the right field wall. Dominic Smith later ripped a first-pitch slider into the right-center gap, stalking Corbin before he could bury late-count breaking balls. Each at-bat was on the Mets’ terms.
New York struck again with a quiet rally in the sixth. Robinson Canó singled, Corbin walked Rosario, then Canó scored when Chirinos just beat out a throw from Jake Noll to Corbin at first. In the seventh, Smith cracked another double to give him three hits off Corbin. Then Corbin left the bases loaded by striking out Rosario, putting a punctuation mark — a dull period — on eight weeks of work.
“There’s glimpses where you feel good out there, and some where you don’t,” Corbin said. “So you just try to take everything positive that you can from this season and try to bring it into next year.”