Corbin had trouble pinpointing the biggest game of his baseball career. That’s maybe because he has spent most of it missing big games altogether.
“It was never his fault,” said Jim Ilardi, an assistant coach when Corbin played Cicero-North Syracuse High in central New York. “He just would be ready to pitch in the next game and we’d lose. We’d wind up having our best guy on the bench. It’s funny how it seemed to always work out that way.”
If it’s a trend, even a jagged one, it ended Thursday when Corbin started for the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Division Series and faced the Dodgers. This is why the Nationals signed him to a six-year, $140 million deal this past winter. To take the ball in big moments. To form a stacked rotation alongside Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. To beat the Dodgers, a 106-win team, a team Corbin has had a lot of success against in the past.
“I’ve never pitched in the playoffs,” Corbin said at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday. “But that was a big reason why I wanted to come here, to have an opportunity to pitch in games like this, big games.”
After joining the varsity baseball team as a high school junior and after nestling into a rotation with two Division I recruits, Corbin recorded a 14-0 record across two seasons. But Cicero-North never did solve the sectional playoffs. In Corbin’s junior year, they sat him for the quarterfinals while expecting a tough matchup in the semis. Then they were upset by Utica High and Corbin never got to pitch. A year later, back in the sectionals, they started him in the quarters to ensure a shot in the semis. Then they lost before the championship, and he didn’t get to pitch for a title.
He wound up doing two years of junior college before he was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in 2009. While at Chipola College in Florida, his second stop, Tom Kotchman remembers Corbin excelling the playoffs. Kotchman scouted Corbin for the Angels and has since grown close with the left-hander. If that was the biggest game he ever pitched in — and it may be — Kotchman’s recollection is that he handled the stakes just fine.
“Those playoff games were serious down there. Chipola had a winning reputation to uphold,” Kotchman said. “But Patrick doesn’t give in to that. With him it’s really simple: When the slider is on, you can forget about hitting him. That’s really it.”
“You could never tell with Pat, big rivalry game, preseason game, early in the season, whatever,” added Ilardi, who mentioned that Corbin always faced the school’s toughest opponents. “He was always the same.”
That’s a common baseball cliche, that a guy doesn’t change, that he comes and does his job, in his own way, no matter the circumstance. But consider Corbin, how calm he is, how he cashed in with a big signing bonus some years ago and still drove around in a used car. He spent this all-star break at his wife’s parents’ house in Syracuse instead of springing for a vacation. He may be the definition of unwavering, on the field and away from it, and now that will be tested in a very new way.
The Dodgers don’t typically hit lefties. He has pitched well against them in the past — with a 3.36 ERA in 19 starts entering Thursday — and has good splits against most of their players. Manager Dave Roberts promised to stack his lineup with right-handed hitters to skew the matchups in his favor. But as Kotchman noted, Corbin’s effectiveness hinges on his slider. If it’s on, he often becomes unhittable. If it’s not and the Dodgers are able to lay off it, he will have to pitch in the strike zone more and could find trouble.
“I’m excited to see what he does with the moment,” Ilardi said. “It really is about time."