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Patrick Corbin pitches six, but Nats fall short in extra innings

Nationals first baseman Luke Voit goes to the turf after catching a pop-up off the bat of the Cubs' Patrick Wisdom in the first inning of Tuesday's game. (Nick Wass/AP)

Hours before an extra-innings loss Tuesday night, Dave Martinez was asked whether Patrick Corbin was pitching to remain in the Washington Nationals’ rotation, seeing that Corbin had failed to complete one inning in two of his previous three outings, then was skipped for a turn so he could reset in the bullpen, no opposing batters in sight. Naturally, the manager dodged the question.

After a tight game with the Chicago Cubs, in a very micro sense, the answer didn’t feel relevant to a team that rallied once, twice, a third and fourth time — and still finished searching for its first walk-off win of the season. The Nationals ultimately fell, 7-5, after leaving the bases loaded in the eighth and wilting late. Each team brought in its automatic runner in the 10th — the Cubs despite a pair of base-running gaffes, the Nationals on an RBI single from CJ Abrams — before Chicago tagged Victor Arano with the two decisive runs in the 11th.

Before the late drama, there was Corbin. It’s hard to watch the left-hander and not think of his immediate and long-term future with the Nationals (39-79), who still have him for the final two seasons of a six-year, $140 million deal. On Aug. 6, after Corbin was crushed by the Philadelphia Phillies, Martinez admitted the team may have to try something different with the 33-year-old. On Tuesday, though, following a 10-day gap between starts, Corbin was right back out there, yielding four runs in six innings.

When Corbin exited, the difference was the damage off him. But the offense woke up to erase that deficit, keeping him at 16 losses. He still has a month and a half to become the first pitcher to reach 20 since Mike Maroth did with the Detroit Tigers in 2003. Despite the four runs on Corbin’s line Tuesday, his ERA dropped from 7.02 to 6.96. The progress was that, unlike in recent appearances, he lasted six innings and kept his club relatively close.

“He threw the ball better,” Martinez said. “He threw a lot more change-ups, some good ones, and ... he just has to keep working on getting the ball down. When he’s down, he was effective. The couple balls he left up, he got hit.”

“If anything, I think just getting a little time away from it, got to throw a couple bullpens, felt good," Corbin explained. "Maybe just a couple mistakes, but I think overall made some quality pitches and felt good mixing it up.”

To initially get ahead, Chicago (48-67) tagged Corbin with a run on three straight hits in the second, Nico Hoerner’s RBI double in the fourth and Franmil Reyes’s homer in the sixth. To answer, Nelson Cruz drove in Victor Robles with a sacrifice fly off Cubs starter Justin Steele, Ildemaro Vargas beat Erich Uelmen with an RBI single, then Luke Voit and Lane Thomas pulled homers off Rowan Wick to tie it.

The Nationals just couldn’t turn that comeback into a come-from-behind win.

How did the Cubs get to Arano in the 11th? With an automatic runner on second to begin the inning, Patrick Wisdom lined a double down the left field line and Seiya Suzuki followed with an RBI single. From there, Arano induced a double play ball, yielded another single to Hoerner and escaped the frame by getting Ian Happ to chase a slider in the dirt. But two runs were enough for Cubs reliever Mark Leiter Jr., who shut the door by retiring Vargas, Yadiel Hernandez and Joey Meneses, who also bounced into a rally-ending double play with the bases loaded in the seventh. Washington stranded 11 in the defeat, logging six strikeouts in the ninth, 10th and 11th.

“We got some guys in the middle of our lineup right now, they got some thump and they’re going to swing big,” Martinez said. “It’s just who they are. Joey today just chased more than I’ve seen him chase, so he’s just got to get back in the zone.”

Who went where in Tuesday’s system shuffle? After veteran outfielder David Dahl opted out of his minor league contract Monday — leaving the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings to become a free agent — a handful of young outfielders played musical chairs. Once 27-year-old Daniel Johnson was promoted to fill Dahl’s spot, the Class AA Harrisburg Senators had room for top prospect Robert Hassell III, a 21-year-old recently acquired in the package for Juan Soto and Josh Bell. He was joined by Yasel Antuna, 22, who had been playing alongside Hassell with the high Class A Wilmington Blue Rocks. To clear space for Antuna in Harrisburg, 23-year-old Justin Connell was demoted a level.

On Tuesday night, Hassell played center for the Senators and Antuna was in left. And while Hassell is the much more intriguing talent, Antuna’s case is interesting. Since he was added to the 40-man roster before the 2020 season, a measure to protect him from being selected in the Rule 5 draft, Antuna switched from shortstop to left field. And because he has been on the 40-man roster for the past two seasons, he’s on the verge of burning two of his minor league option years without appearing in the majors.

Through a technicality, there’s a chance Antuna qualifies for a fourth option year instead of the typical three. That would help him maintain some value as he keeps searching for consistency at the plate. But if next season is the final one he can swing between the majors and minors without going on waivers, the final months of this season could dictate whether Washington keeps him around. This promotion to Class AA is a necessary test. Once a high-profile international signee, Antuna walked in 17.3 percent of his plate appearances in Wilmington (up from 10.1 percent in 2021). That has improved his overall numbers even as he’s slugged a bit less.

How will the state of the Nationals affect season ticket prices for 2023? Current season-plan holders can renew for the same price they paid in 2022, according to emails sent out by the team Monday. With many fans angered by Soto being traded, the team is offering additional perks depending on each plan’s length.