ATLANTA — Let’s get this out of the way: The Washington Nationals didn’t hit much Thursday, didn’t plate a run until the ninth, and lost to the Atlanta Braves 5-1 to split a four-game series at Truist Park. Of their four hits, three singles and a double, the second could have been called an error by the official scorer. They were shut down by a mix of Tucker Davidson, who made his third career start, and relievers Josh Tomlin, Sean Newcomb and Will Smith. The offense has had better lapses, let alone better games, and finished with 10 strikeouts.
But within that dry showing was a concerning sixth inning for starter Patrick Corbin. It included four of the Braves’ runs and flashed a consistent problem for Corbin, whose season ERA skipped from 6.23 to 6.28 on Thursday: The lefty isn’t missing enough bats.
“I mean obviously I’d like to strike out more guys,” Corbin said after Washington fell to 23-30, deeper into last place in the National League East. Corbin has struck out 45 batters and allowed 12 homers in 57 1-3 innings. If the season finished Thursday, his strikeout rate would be his lowest since 2016.
“I’m not really sure why that is, or what’s different,” Corbin added. “I’m just going to continue to work on it. I think at times my slider has been pretty good, and maybe sometimes not as sharp. Not quite sure why. Just going to continue to keep throwing it, and hopefully I’ll start getting more swings and misses on it.”
The first pitch of the game was a good sign for Corbin. He threw a slider to Ronald Acuña Jr., a bit below the zone, and the Braves’ best hitter tapped a check-swing groundout toward the mound. Corbin thrives when his slider sits between the bottom edges and the dirt in front of his catcher. That’s where he kept it Thursday, at least until he served a middle-middle slider to Dansby Swanson in the sixth. Six of his 16 outs came on that pitch.
But that included only one of his four strikeouts, when Davidson, the Braves’ starter, swung through a low slider in the third. The Braves swung at 43 of his 79 total pitches in 5 1-3 frames, yet finished with only nine whiffs. Five were on his slider, a 25 percent whiff rate on the 20 he threw, helping the Braves turn hard outs into production toward the end of his outing. In 2019, when Corbin was far sharper than he’s been this season, the whiff rate on his slider was 51.4 percent. In 2018, the season that earned him a six-year, $140 million contract with Washington, it was 53.1, making his slider one of the league’s best put-away pitches.
In 2021 that number has hovered around 38, just as his overall whiff rate has sagged to just over a quarter of his pitches. That’s what eventually caught up to him Thursday. He had cruised through five innings on 53 pitches. He had matched Davidson, zero for zero, since the Nationals couldn’t touch the 25-year-old. Davidson lasted 5 2-3 innings, walked five and yielded one hit, a single to right-center for Jordy Mercer. It was a pitchers duel, and then it wasn’t.
“When he’s getting a lot of groundballs, I think his slider is playing really well,” said manager Dave Martinez, publicly rejecting that Corbin has to get more whiffs with that pitch. “He was getting a lot of weak groundballs early. They didn’t get the ball in the air very much today. That only indicates that his slider is good. You’re talking about some good hitters on that other side.”
Trouble stirred for Corbin in his third trip through Atlanta’s order. That has, in recent years, become the well-worn demarcation between front line starters and everyone else. The front line starters can win a third matchup with batters, because they have big arsenals or can vary the pitches they do use, in Corbin’s case a slider, four-seam fastball and sinker (plus a change-up he threw only twice Thursday).
Here was how his third meetings went with Acuña, Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley, Swanson and Ehire Adrianza, in corresponding order: a 109-mph single on a full-count sinker, a lineout, a single on a high four-seam fastball, a cue-shot double down the right-field line, a two-run homer on a sitting-duck slider, then a walk that ended his outing. If given enough chances, loud contact will break through. The Nationals and Corbin felt that with a seesawed score.
“It was frustrating because I felt really good,” Corbin said. “Tried to keep us in the game there, their team was pitching really well, so just ... I don’t know.”
The Nationals’ lineup was without Kyle Schwarber, who sat with a sore right knee after diving after a sinking double Wednesday night. Alex Avila subbed in for Yan Gomes, providing a notable offensive downgrade at catcher. Josh Harrison shifted to left in place of Schwarber. Mercer started at second, replacing Harrison there, and actually notched half of the club’s hits.
Corbin wasn’t the only reason the Nationals fell Thursday, or even in the top one. But he again showed how much he has to fix.