Starter Patrick Corbin Is the Nationals' Not-So-Secret Weapon to Steady a Shaky Bullpen

So much of the Nationals' game plan—and hope, really—rests on the availability of starting pitcher Patrick Corbin to come in as a reliever.
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HOUSTON — On the day before World Series, just as expected, Astros skipper AJ Hinch confirmed the first three members of his rotation: Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke. The Nationals’ Dave Martinez, however, would not do the same.

Game 1 was set. (Max Scherzer.) So was Game 2. (Stephen Strasburg.) But Game 3… well, while you’d think it would be Patrick Corbin, Martinez wouldn’t say.

Asked if this was because Corbin could be used in relief before then, Martinez turned coy: “We shall see.” Asked if he could share something slightly less cryptic, he elaborated: “We’re going to play every game to go 1-0… If there’s a situation that we feel like a starter could benefit on us capitalizing and winning a game, then so be it. But there’s seven games, so we’ve got to be very careful of how we do things.”

Martinez’s hints proved solid: Corbin was the first pitcher out of the ‘pen in the Nationals’ Game 1 victory on Tuesday, coming in for the sixth inning. It was not the first time that the team has pulled this trick this October. And it may not be the last, either. For a club that’s relied so heavily on its starters—and, by extension, done so much to limit the exposure of its relievers—this strategy is one more way to ensure that Washington's best pitchers see as much time on the mound as possible. 

But just because it’s a straightforward plan in theory doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily an easy one to execute in the reality of a full series. Going 1-0, after all, can’t come about in a vacuum if it’s going to come about more than once.

On Tuesday, it became clear around the third inning that the Nationals could need Corbin. There’d been no confirmation to him before the game that he should plan to pitch. But he’d known he should at least plan to be available. And in the third, as Scherzer grinded with a pitch count that climbed into the fifties and sixties, it was evident that “available” would have to transition into “on.” Corbin headed to the ‘pen to get loose soon after. Even as the offense gave the team some breathing room in the top of the fifth—taking a three-run lead—it was set that Scherzer would come off, and Corbin would be the one to take his place. Just for an inning.

“He could’ve gone a little bit longer, but it was ideally just one,” said pitching coach Paul Menhart.

Why? One inning could keep him more or less on his regular schedule. Corbin had started the final game of the NLCS, but that was a full week ago; Tuesday was set to be a bullpen day for him. So his 21-pitch sixth inning—two strikeouts, a hit, and a groundout to finish—was roughly equivalent to a regular workout, albeit a regular workout that took place in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans in his first-ever World Series appearance.

“It’s kind of like a bullpen session for him,” Menhart said.

Or even preferable to a bullpen session, Corbin noted: “At this point, you might as well pitch in games instead of bullpens.”

It’s the Nationals’ oft-discussed 1-0 mindset, but with a slightly more future-focused view than, say, the 1-0 mindset in the wild-card game that led them to piggyback Scherzer with three full frames from Strasburg. It’s walking the line between an effective present and a totally mortgaged future. It still demands a mental shift from a starter, but Corbin—who has some experience in the ‘pen but had not worked in relief in more than two years until this postseason—has answered the call.

“He’s comfortable,” said reliever Sean Doolittle. “As a starter, it’s not easy to do, but he seems really comfortable. It’s impressive.”

It’s what the Nationals have asked of essentially their whole rotation in October

“That’s all of us,” Scherzer said. “We’ve all pitched out of the ‘pen. That’s the mantra of what this clubhouse is about: Any time your number gets called, you’re ready, and you get into the game and do whatever it takes to help this team win. That’s everybody in the clubhouse. 

"Hats off to Corbin. But he’s just one of the guys.”

Afterward, Corbin noted that he wasn’t sure if he’d be asked to start Game 3. Menhart and Martinez said the same. It would seem potentially likely that Aníbal Sánchez could take Game 3, given the relative ease of handing him that spot while ensuring a totally rested Corbin for Game 4. But the fact that it remains a question at all shows the Nationals’ flexibility in a spot that could have easily closed doors for the team rather than opened them.

Had the Nationals not turned to Corbin after Scherzer, they’d have had to ask their traditional relievers to go four innings—which, given that there is not much in the way of functional middle relief here, could have turned ugly. “We’ve got our guys that we trust toward the tail end of the game,” Menhart said. “If we can get our starters to go six or seven, we feel pretty good about that volume.” So Corbin allowed the ‘pen to function as if the starter had gone six. Going with Corbin for more than one inning, however, could have definitively burned him for Game 3. The Nationals went down the middle here and threaded the needle. And as for the rest?

“We’ll figure tomorrow out tomorrow,” Doolittle said.