“He’s just,” Corbin said later, each word a struggle, “all I’m thinking about.”
In 2009, Skaggs, a lefty from California, was taken with the 40th pick in Major League Baseball’s draft by the Los Angeles Angels, exactly 40 picks before the Angels selected Patrick Corbin, a lefty from New York via community college in Florida. In 2010, those two pitchers — by then, friends — were traded together to Arizona. In April 2012, Corbin made his big league debut. In August 2012, Skaggs — by then, an even better buddy — followed.
On Tuesday, Corbin pitched.
“When you have a loss, you want to keep things as normal as you can and just try to go out there and do what you have to do,” Corbin said.
Those are words assigned to the moment, and they make as much sense as anything, I suppose. What you thought, in watching Corbin on Tuesday, was something different: How do people do this? Not pitch, in particular, or even play baseball more broadly. But work at all following unspeakable tragedy? The Angels, who called Skaggs a teammate, gathered again and played Tuesday night in Texas, the day after the 27-year-old pitcher was found unresponsive at the team hotel. They played without an explanation as to what happened. They played because that’s what the schedule said they should do.
“A lot of problems go away when the first pitch is thrown until the last pitch is thrown,” Angels General Manager Billy Eppler said Tuesday at a news conference in Arlington, Tex.
And so, half a country away, with his friend inexplicably dead, 7:05 p.m. arrived, and Corbin threw his first pitch.
“It’s hard,” said Gerardo Parra, a National now, but once an Arizona teammate of both Skaggs and Corbin. “But Corbin, he’s a professional guy.”
Among baseball players, there’s no higher compliment. Most of the time, it means something more innocuous than what Corbin dealt with Tuesday — that he can shrug off a minor injury or a lousy inning and move forward. This was different.
The ties here were deep and real. Corbin and Skaggs played together in Orem, Utah — rookie ball. They played together in Mobile, Ala. — Class AA. This offseason, Skaggs was in Corbin’s wedding. They stayed at each other’s houses. They were buddies through baseball. But they were buddies in life, to the point that when Corbin was asked to describe their friendship afterward, he started, then stopped, then looked down, struggling to hold back tears.
“Sorry,” he said, for no reason at all.
“It’s difficult to know that he’s gone,” said Nats outfielder Adam Eaton, who hit second and played right field a day after Skaggs’s death. Eaton and Skaggs were all sorts of intertwined as well. They played instructional league together with Arizona. They were traded away from the Diamondbacks in the same three-way deal, Skaggs back to the Angels, Eaton to the Chicago White Sox.
“Saw his debut,” Eaton said. “Saw his first hit. Saw his first strikeout. Know his wife. My wife knows his family.
Eaton’s eyes were shielded by wraparound shades when he spoke Tuesday afternoon, just after batting practice.
“I’m not quite sure it’s hit me yet,” Eaton said. “My family, our hearts go out to his family. He’s kind of kicked us in the pants in his passing that we need to take every day as it’s our last and enjoy our family and love our family and what’s important in our life, and know that we’re blessed to play this game every day. That’s the gift he’s given us, even after.
“But it’s very difficult, man. Very difficult.”
When a tragedy like this happens, it’s so tempting — even irresistible — to connect the emotions of the moment to the performance that follows. Who could forget Dee Gordon, then the Marlins second baseman, following the September 2016 death of Miami ace Jose Fernandez in a boating accident by nailing a leadoff homer, then sobbing as he reached home plate? Gordon thumped his chest and looked to the sky. That swing — thanks to YouTube and MLB.com and on and on — is now an indelible tribute to Fernandez’s memory.
Watching Corbin on Tuesday was more subtle, because the whole ballpark wasn’t wrapped up in the fallout from Skaggs’s death. The moment of silence came and went — appropriate, nothing more. How many in the crowd of 21,361 even realized Corbin had switched his uniform number from his normal 46 to the 45 of Skaggs? You could be excused for missing the subtle tribute, which was hardly surprising to people who know Corbin.
“I know he’s the epitome of class,” said Tom Kotchman, the scout who oversaw Corbin’s selection by the Angels. “He’s the kind of kid that, five years ago, I would have given him my daughter’s phone number. He’s just the epitome of the clean-cut, all-American kid that the only way you knew he was a high draft pick is by watching him pitch. Which is the same thing as Tyler Skaggs. You had to watch him pitch. Those guys, they don’t boast about themselves.”
So Corbin, he just pitched. When the first three Marlins laced singles off him, plating a run, it was easy to believe the emotions were too much to handle. That would have been understandable.
“For me, the first inning was going to be the toughest,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “Knowing him, I could see a little bit in his face.”
And then — everything went right. Corbin threw three innings, endured a 76-minute rain delay and re-emerged to throw four more as the most effective version of himself in a 3-2 victory. His final line of seven innings and one run with no walks and seven strikeouts would have been exactly what the Nats needed had Tuesday been a normal day. For Patrick Corbin, Tuesday was not a normal day. Not with the No. 45 on his back. Not with that 45 scratched into the dirt on the back of the mound. Considering the circumstances, it was a remarkable performance.
“You can’t believe he’s gone,” Corbin said.
A lot of problems go away when the first pitch is thrown until the last pitch is thrown. Patrick Corbin’s last pitch Tuesday night struck out Jorge Alfaro. Later, he walked out of the clubhouse carrying two bags of food, met his wife and headed out of the ballpark. His next pitch comes Sunday. That’s a lot of time to wrestle with all the emotions brought about by a friend who died at 27, then do this all again.