WASHINGTON — Here came Patrick Corbin, gliding across the outfield grass, the Washington Nationals's latest escape plan resting squarely on his left arm.
They needed 12 more outs against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday night. They needed Corbin, the third ace of their stacked rotation, the pitcher they signed to a huge contract last winter, to get at least three of them. But he couldn't. He instead gave up a two-run double, and then he gave up another, and then the Dodgers beat the Nationals, 10-4, because everything went sideways in that sixth inning. Six runs stained Corbin's final line. That only stung more once Washington made a small push that couldn't cover the bullpen's mess. The Nationals now face potential elimination in Game 4 at Nationals Park on Monday.
Corbin was, in theory, brought to Washington for moments just like this. Not necessarily a relief appearance - and not necessarily a relief appearance in the guts of the National League Division Series - but for whenever the stakes were climbing. That was now.
And then now proved too much for him.
"It just stinks," Corbin said, his voice lowered a bit, his locker surrounded by two dozen reporters for the wrong reasons. "I feel like I let these guys down."
The Nationals's first critical decision arrived at the onset of this game. They could have pushed Max Scherzer to start, as previously scheduled, even after he threw 14 pitches out of the bullpen in a Game 2 victory on Friday. It was the riskier option. It also fit with Washington's willingness to do anything for an edge. But the calculations still led Scherzer and Manager Dave Martinez to restraint. Scherzer told Martinez that the Nationals would get his best after one more day of rest. Martinez agreed and, with that, he shifted to 35-year-old Aníbal Sánchez.
And Sánchez was excellent until Max Muncy tagged him for a towering, two-out home run in the fifth. He otherwise struck out nine in five innings. The Nationals still had the lead when Sánchez exited, thanks to a two-run homer from Juan Soto in the first, but there were still four innings to pitch. Corbin was the first reliever to loosen. It didn't matter that he'd thrown six innings and 107 pitches just three days earlier.
This was a continuation of the Nationals' insistence on hiding their middle relievers at all costs. Martinez has made it clear that he trusts six pitchers on his roster: Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Sánchez, and relievers Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle. That's it. That's why Martinez brought in Scherzer for the eighth inning of Game 3. And that's why Corbin became the latest starter to moonlight in the bullpen. It seemed conceivable, at least for a moment, that a combination of Corbin, Doolittle and Hudson could finish the game. Then this experiment disintegrated in Corbin's hands.
The meat of the Dodgers order was waiting for Corbin. His slider was off. He issued a leadoff single to Cody Bellinger, who had been hitless in the series, before settling the danger with back-to-back strikeouts. He just couldn't find his way out of the woods.
"You don't have that time to set your pitches up going into it," catcher Yan Gomes said of Corbin making a relief appearance instead of starting. "They already knew what we were going with, and they had some really good at-bats against us."
Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts had set his lineup with the thought of Corbin entering at some point. Roberts was fine with pinch-hitting for two of his lefties — there were five in his original order — starting when he lifted Gavin Lux for David Freese. Freese dribbled a single through the right side of the infield. That brought up Russell Martin, who hit .220 this season, and he rocked a low slider into the left-center gap. Then Corbin lost control. He walked Chris Taylor with four erratic pitches. He let Enrique Hernández stretch the lead with a second two-run double that restarted the carousel around the bases.
Hernández was pinch-hitting for the left-handed Joc Pederson. The rally put the Dodgers' depth on full display. The doubles came on Corbin's slider, his best pitch but a pitch that didn't have its usual break when he most needed it to. His final act of the night was standing on the mound while the Nationals intentionally walked Muncy. He then exited the field.
The crowd quieted around him after 35 fateful pitches, and that's when Justin Turner launched a three-run homer off Wander Suero. All seven of the Dodgers's sixth-inning runs came with two outs and two strikes. That's how slim the Nationals's margin for error was. That's what separates winners from losers in October.
"We were at a good spot in the lineup where we thought Corbin could get through it," Martinez said. "And his stuff was good . . . He had every hitter 0-2. He just couldn't finish."
They turned to Corbin — and Scherzer two nights earlier — to avoid using any of Suero, Fernando Rodney, Hunter Strickland or Tanner Rainey in big spots. Strickland later gave up a two-run homer to Martin in the ninth. That was the ninth homer he has allowed in 13 career postseason innings. That was more evidence of why there was such an outsize effort to hide them in the first place.
But it was too late for the Nationals to reverse course. They tried to use Corbin as a Band-Aid. It didn't work. They will now need a new plan Monday, facing elimination, figuring it will be Scherzer until he has absolutely nothing left.
Only their season will depend on it.