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Patrick Corbin (back spasms) exits early, and Nats’ rally falls short late

Patrick Corbin left in the first inning Tuesday night with back spasms. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

ATLANTA — After his 12th pitch Tuesday night, Patrick Corbin kicked at the rubber on the Truist Park pitcher’s mound for a bit longer than usual. Then he stepped off, stretched out his back behind the bump, squatted and put his head near his glove.

By that time, Manager Dave Martinez and athletic trainer Paul Lessard had jogged out to meet him. A few moments later, Corbin walked off with Lessard as Martinez remained to hand the ball to his next pitcher.

The Washington Nationals would go on to lose, 3-2, to the Atlanta Braves, inching closer to the century mark in the loss column at 51-97 with 14 games remaining. The Nationals struck out 14 times and left 11 on base, including three in the ninth after trimming their deficit to one run off Braves closer Kenley Jansen.

But the night started with Corbin’s exit, later announced as back spasms. While he was sore afterward, it remains a significant development for a pitcher who, despite well-documented struggles since playing a key role in the Nationals’ 2019 World Series run, has consistently taken the mound every fifth day.

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“If I could’ve pitched, I would’ve. Never want to put the bullpen in a situation like that,” Corbin said. “So I tried to wait as long as I could to see if [the pain] would go away, but it just wasn’t going away. I don’t think it’ll be too serious, but it was something [where] I wasn’t going to be able to throw.”

Tuesday brought his 30th start of the season — he has made at least 30 in every season with the Nationals aside from pandemic-shortened 2020. Those starts haven’t always been pretty, including a 2022 campaign in which he has an MLB-high 18 losses while also leading the way in earned runs allowed (100) and hits (199). But even as bad as he has been for extended stretches, his ability to take the mound every fifth day has helped stabilize a rotation often in flux.

Corbin said he doesn’t believe the injury is too serious, but the left-hander is only the latest Nationals pitcher bitten by the bug. Stephen Strasburg (thoracic outlet syndrome) and Joe Ross (Tommy John surgery) combined to make just one start. Aníbal Sánchez didn’t make a start until mid-July after spending the first three months of the year rehabbing a neck impingement.

Cade Cavalli made his major league debut Aug. 26 before ending up on the injured list a few days later with right shoulder inflammation, the same injury that forced Erick Fedde to miss nearly a month.

In the short term, Corbin’s injury forced the Nationals bullpen to cover the final 7⅓ innings Tuesday and complicated Martinez’s pitching plans for the rest of the series. Martinez didn’t want to name a starter for Wednesday ahead of Tuesday’s game until he saw the state of his bullpen; Paolo Espino will start the series finale, Martinez said following the loss.

The Nationals ended up using four relievers to cover the rest of the game. Erasmo Ramirez entered first and pitched three innings. In the fourth inning, Ramirez allowed a single to Matt Olson, prompting a mound visit from pitching coach Jim Hickey ahead of an at-bat against Travis ­d’Arnaud. The Braves’ catcher then hit the first pitch he saw out of the ballpark to give Atlanta a 2-0 lead.

Washington couldn’t solve Braves starter Charlie Morton. The Nationals repeatedly chased his curveball, even when it didn’t threaten the strike zone, striking out nine times against the right-hander, seven on his curve alone.

But in the sixth, the Nationals put runners on the corners to end Morton’s night. Joey Meneses came in to score when Braves second baseman Vaughn Grissom made a throwing error on a tailor-made double play ball to cut the Braves’ lead to 2-1.

Jordan Weems, Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan covered the rest of the game. Dansby Swanson hit a solo shot off Finnegan to give the Braves (93-55) a much-needed insurance run in the eighth.

The Nationals scored in the ninth on a two-out RBI single by Luis García, then loaded the bases for Luke Voit, who flied out to center field to end the game.

“We ended up being all right,” Martinez said of the bullpen. “The guys came out and threw the ball well. And the beauty of it, we [were] in the game until the end.”

How did Nelson Cruz feel after batting practice Monday? Martinez said Cruz was having trouble focusing out of his left eye while hitting. He has been sidelined with eye inflammation since Sept. 13 and has been taking medicine to address his vision. Martinez said the team will reassess Cruz’s status in a day or two.

A former National announces his retirement. Catcher Kurt Suzuki, who had stints in Washington from 2012 to 2013 and 2019 to 2020, when he was a part of the 2019 World Series roster, said he plans to retire at the end of the season. He made one all-star appearance with the Minnesota Twins and played for five teams; he currently plays for the Los Angeles Angels.

In four seasons with Washington, Suzuki hit .252 with 27 home runs and 130 RBI.