LOS ANGELES — Patrick Corbin’s 107th pitch led to a hard-skipping grounder off Austin Barnes’s bat, the kind of hit that’s been too much trouble for the Washington Nationals as of late. And it could have led to the kind of play that’s unwound so many of their games this season. And it could have led to that kind of night yet again.
And then it didn’t.
Anthony Rendon handled the ball on his heels, flung it to Brian Dozier at second, and Dozier fired it to first for an inning-ending double play in the seventh. This was the Nationals in a 6-0 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday night: paced by Corbin, defense clicking behind him, doing what they needed to when they needed to most. Corbin allowed just three hits in seven scoreless innings against the National League’s best offense. Howie Kendrick kick-started Washington with a three-run, first-inning homer, and added a fourth RBI in a pull-away eighth. The Nationals’ defense didn’t crack, not this time, and that all nudged them closer to .500 at 15-22.
“I still think we’re a very good ballclub,” Corbin said after the best start of his first season with Washington. “Things are going to turn around for sure. The guys in here are too good for us to keep losing.”
They couldn’t leave their problems in Milwaukee. This doesn’t work like that. After being swept for the first time this season by the Brewers, the Nationals flew to Los Angeles having lost four straight, 11 of their last 14, and any benefit of the doubt once April issues so clearly seeped into May. They have followed Washington since the start of the year, from game to game, from city to city, from the Midwest to here, in Dodger Stadium, into a series against one of the league’s best teams.
That’s how their next chance at a turnaround was presented. That’s how Thursday began.
“No one’s happy in this clubhouse of where we are at, I can tell you that right now,” Manager Dave Martinez said a few hours before first pitch. “But with that being said, you don’t want to add that added pressure. You just want to go out there and play the game that we’re capable of playing.”
It seems like a fair expectation, for professional players to perform as such, but the Nationals had failed to reach it, again and again, in recent weeks. Blame the list of injuries, or a rickety bullpen, or inconsistent bats. Blame the manager, or the general manager, or ownership if it helps. But the bottom line, from Opening Day to now, is that they have underperformed and often undercut themselves in the process. There are only so many ways to spin it.
Yet if there’s anything redeeming about baseball’s schedule — unrelenting at its best, unforgiving most days — it’s the promise of another chance. And the Nationals grabbed this one, right from the start, even as the Dodgers were surging with an MLB-best 15-4 record at home. Adam Eaton led off the game by stretching a single into a double with heads-up base running. Rendon reached when he was hit by a pitch for the fourth time in his last five contests. Then Kendrick stepped to the plate, loaded for a 2-2 curve from Dodgers starter Rich Hill, and dispensed the pitch over the left field fence.
Kendrick started at first base because Ryan Zimmerman and Matt Adams, the usual options, are both out with injuries. So is left fielder Juan Soto, shortstop Trea Turner and reliever Tony Sipp, among others, and Kendrick has been one of the few bright spots on this stitched-together team. He entered the game with a .320 average, .942 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and five home runs. And his sixth, off Hill’s hanging breaking ball in the first, gave Corbin a three-run lead before he stepped on the mound.
The 29-year-old lefty was up for protecting it, and stuck to his fastball-slider combination to do so. He struck out two in the first, two in the second, two in the third and, after loading the bases in the fourth, got out of the jam with an around-the-horn double play. Corbin has been another positive for the Nationals, a breather from the pervasive stress, but even he had been knocked around for nine runs across his last two outings. His command had been shaky. His mistakes wound up on the scoreboard. His stuff wasn’t crisp, at least not as crisp as it had been, then he found it all against a familiar opponent.
“He was tremendous,” said catcher Yan Gomes of Corbin. “Any time he was in trouble he made the right pitch and got some big plays out of it.”
Corbin often faced the Dodgers while pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first six years of his career. He came into this game with a 3.59 ERA and 4-9 record in 18 career starts against them. He stuffed his 19th with eight strikeouts, four walks, and more reasons believe the Nationals have the right staff if everything else falls into place. Then Corbin exited after seven innings, that Rendon-Dozier double play accounting for his final two outs, and turned the game over to the bullpen.
Kyle Barraclough got the first out of the eighth, yielded two singles, then got the second out before he was replaced by Sean Doolittle. The lefty closer finished the eighth and ninth in 15 pitches. The win, in the end, was simple: The starter dominated. The bullpen did its job. The offense was effective early and opportunistic late.
“That was good baseball,” said Martinez, and now his team just has to start over and do it again.