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Patrick Corbin to start Nationals opener for second straight year

Patrick Corbin was named the Opening Day starter on Friday afternoon. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Dave Martinez made official Friday what had been expected for most of spring training: When the Washington Nationals begin their season Thursday at home against the Atlanta Braves, veteran left-hander Patrick Corbin will be on the mound for his second consecutive Opening Day start.

Corbin, 33, is entering his 11th season, making him the team’s most experienced starter. He arrived at camp early and was stretched out more than any of the starters in camp, with Martinez playing with the team’s rotation to line Corbin up for the opener. His final spring start will be Saturday against the Houston Astros.

“It’s always special,” Corbin said. “It seems like I just got called up just yesterday. It’s flown by, so you just try to cherish these moments and really appreciate them. They don’t come too often. . . . Go out there and compete, and I’m ready to go.”

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Corbin made two previous Opening Day starts: an eight-strikeout performance in a win for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2018 and a four-inning outing against the Mets last season that was affected by a rain delay and a shortened spring training following a work stoppage.

Corbin, coming off a 6-19 season with a 6.31 ERA, has shown signs of a rebound in recent weeks and is built up to the point that he expects to throw 90 to 100 pitches against the Braves. He threw six innings in his previous start, allowing one run.

Corbin will join Liván Hernández, John Lannan, Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer as Nationals pitchers to make at least two Opening Day starts. Corbin will face a familiar foe in the Braves; he is 6-10 with a 4.28 career ERA against the defending NL East champions. Corbin said they possess a lineup with “big-time hitters with power.” His goal is to stay within himself, marshaling the Opening Day adrenaline.

“Anytime anybody gets named Opening Day [starter], it’s special,” said right-hander Trevor Williams, a free agent addition from the Mets who will join Corbin in the rotation. “The leader that he is, the veteran presence on the staff . . . to start the year with him is only going to set the tone for our team and our rotation the rest of the way.”

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Opening Day starts are typically reserved for the ace of a team’s rotation. For Corbin, the nod is more a show of confidence that he can return to the form that earned him a six-year, $140 million contract from the Nationals in 2018. He delivered on that deal in his first season in Washington, going 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA as a key part of the rotation that led the Nationals to the World Series title. But since, he has been one of the worst pitchers in baseball.

His ERA has steadily risen (4.66 in 2020, 5.82 in 2021). Batters hit .300 against him last season, and the average exit velocity of balls put in play against Corbin was 90.8 mph. That ranked in the bottom 4 percent of qualified pitchers.

Corbin said he has made some tweaks to his arm slot that he believes will allow him to replicate the release point on his slider and other pitches from when he was at his best. Martinez has stressed to Corbin — both this spring and the past few seasons — the need for him to keep the ball low in the zone. He also has praised Corbin for making 31 starts each of the past two seasons and for being a leader in the clubhouse despite his struggles.

But it’s fair to wonder whether Corbin, who has led the majors in losses and earned runs allowed the past two seasons, is capable of making the adjustments necessary to regain the form that earned him his contract.

“I’ve always said this before: I never got down on Patrick,” Martinez said. “We know what he can do at any given time. He worked really hard over the winter, came into spring training in great shape, had a plan, and he’s been pitching well.”

Corbin said he is most excited for his younger teammates who haven’t experienced Opening Day. He called it a “playoff-like atmosphere” with the crowd. The Nationals have tempered expectations for the season, but they hope an improved Corbin can anchor a young rotation and turn one of last season’s weaknesses into a strength this campaign.

“Just getting back out there in front of a packed stadium in front of the fans again is always exciting,” Corbin said. “I’m honored to be able to do it again.”