PITTSBURGH -- Thursday has been the date circled in red for many Nationals fans, as they await the return of ace Max Scherzer. But the rest of Washington's rotation has flexed its collective muscle in the first three contests of a four-game series against the Pirates.
That stretch of dominance continued Wednesday with the most shutdown start of all. Patrick Corbin pitched eight scoreless innings at PNC Park, and a six-run rally in the third inning was more than enough to propel the Nats to an 11-1 win.
Corbin had a convincing case to come out for the ninth to try for a complete-game shutout -- something he stopped in the clubhouse prior to Wednesday's game to watch Lucas Giolito accomplish in the White Sox 4-0 victory over the Twins. Corbin was at just 93 pitches after the eighth, but he quickly received handshakes and appreciation as he trotted into the dugout at the end of the frame.
“If the game was close, obviously, he stays in the game,” manager Dave Martinez said. “But this is the time of year, with us scoring all those runs, to give him a little breather, give him a little break. He did everything he had to do for us. We scored a bunch of runs, and that’s all it was.”
“It’s a long season,” Corbin said. “Save me some pitches and give someone else a little bit of work. I don’t blame him.”
When Corbin has been at his best this year, his swing-and-miss stuff has typically been the reason. But Corbin struck out only four Bucs batters, though his devastating strike-three slider to Erik Gonzalez in the eighth was another flash of the most swing-and-miss-prone slider in the Majors this season (261).
Instead, Corbin went with a more fastball-intensive selection of pitches. Though he’s thrown his slider a higher percentage than either his two-seam fastball or four-seamer on the year, he threw 13 more two-seamers (43) than sliders (30) against the Pirates.
“I know teams, when they face me and they know they’re going to see a lot of sliders, some lay off, some don’t,” Corbin said. “You’ve just got to execute your fastball, command it to both sides of the plate and mix them there. You can get quicker outs and get ground balls and work deeper into ballgames.”
Corbin kept the ball low in the zone and exploited early swings by Pittsburgh. Catcher Yan Gomes said of the game plan: "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
"You've got to understand that as the season goes on, guys are going to start making adjustments to what's working for him,” Gomes said. “... If he's throwing it good, keeping the ball down, might as well keep doing that."
“We couldn’t get the ball in the air,” Bucs manager Clint Hurdle said. “Just throttled us. On and off, forward and back, enough fastballs up. Just a really solid mix of pitches. We didn’t have any answer.”
Everything is working for the Nationals' rotation in the short term. Washington’s starters have combined to throw 18 1/3 scoreless frames against the Pirates in this series, though Joe Ross’ start Monday was cut short by an injury after 3 1/3 innings. The 15 innings by Stephen Strasburg and Corbin on consecutive days will give Martinez a bounty of bullpen options on Thursday, when Scherzer is expected to have a limit of 75-80 pitches.
Corbin took part in the blazing offense, too. He scored after reaching on a fielder’s choice in the third, then knocked an RBI double to complete a three-run rally in the eighth.
“I finally got into the mix, finally got a hit,” Corbin said. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot.”
The Nats have scored double-digit runs in five of their past seven games. They continue to hit throughout the lineup, and that ability showed up Wednesday with Asdrubal Cabrera’s three-run homer from the five-hole and Gomes’ two doubles and two RBIs from the No. 8 spot.
But Washington’s paradigm is built on its starting pitching. Even with Scherzer and Strasburg, the Nationals went out and handed a six-year deal to Corbin, the hottest free-agent pitcher on the market this past offseason to reinforce that point. He’s one of the key pieces they believe can lead them not only to the playoffs, but to winning the National League East.
Have they gotten all they asked for from Corbin so far?
“And more,” Martinez said. “And more. Yeah, he’s been tremendous.”