Patrick Corbin strikes out 12 as Nationals beat Pirates

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In the sixth inning, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Michael Chavis took an awkward swing that left him with one knee in the dirt and his bat far behind his head. He looked to the sky in frustration — he had fallen for that pitch again.

Patrick Corbin buried a slider in the dirt, and Chavis chased it. It was Chavis’s third strikeout of the game, but he certainly wasn’t the only one victimized by Corbin’s slider during the Washington Nationals’ 3-1 win Tuesday night at Nationals Park, their third in a row and sixth in the past eight games.

In the eighth inning, Oneil Cruz looked just as awkward when Corbin struck him out with a slider tailing away from him. One batter earlier, Corbin had struck out Bryan Reynolds to open the inning. After Cruz headed to the dugout, Corbin whiffed Chavis with a slider in the dirt — again — to match a career high with 12 strikeouts.

All Chavis could do was shake his head as Corbin walked to the dugout, receiving a standing ovation from the 22,575 in attendance all the while.

“Slider was good today,” Corbin said. “I thought [catcher Riley Adams] did a great job back there. Just one of those nights where it seemed everything was clicking, and it just shows all the work that we’ve been doing to try to get to this point.”

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Seven of Corbin’s strikeouts came via the slider. That pitch helped the 32-year-old make a name for himself in the major leagues but has been inconsistent since he joined the Nationals on a six-year, $140 million contract in 2019, leading to struggles that have made him one of the major leagues’ worst pitchers over the past three years.

On Tuesday, among his 113 pitches he threw 51 sliders that resulted in 19 swings and 14 whiffs (73.7 percent) — his season average for whiff rate on the pitch had been 32.7 percent. He threw his slider consistently between 82 and 84 mph, a bit faster than average.

The start to Corbin’s outing was less than ideal: Ke’Bryan Hayes singled on the first pitch, then Reynolds walked. But Corbin struck out the next three — Cruz on a sinker and Chavis and Josh VanMeter on sliders — to escape the jam.

“He got out of that first inning. … I thought for a second we were going to lose him there right away,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “Then he started to settle down, got out of that inning, and the rest of the game he was really good.”

The Nationals (29-48) scored in the bottom half of the first to give Corbin the lead, and he retired the side in order in two of his next three innings. In the third, Hayes and Reynolds singled with one out but Corbin struck out the next two. The fifth inning looked a lot like the third — two batters reached for the Pirates (29-45) before Corbin got Cruz to ground out.

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In the sixth, Corbin was a pitch away from putting up another zero. He had worked into a 0-2 count against Diego Castillo, so Corbin went to his slider for the strikeout — but he spiked three straight in the dirt. On a full count, Castillo took Corbin’s sinker over the right field fence to tie it at 1.

Still, Martinez trusted Corbin to go deep into the game, and Corbin rewarded him with a nine-pitch seventh inning, leaving his pitch count at 99. It would’ve made sense for Martinez to pull Corbin then — the Pirates’ second through fourth hitters were set to see him for a fourth time, and the Nationals’ bullpen was fairly rested. But Martinez sent him out for the eighth — he joked that he had predicted Corbin would go eight innings before the game — and Corbin capped his night by striking out the side.

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The Nationals grabbed the lead in the bottom half, and Tanner Rainey put two runners on but completed a scoreless ninth — with a strikeout, of course — to end it.

“We had a really good slider tonight, and when you’re ahead they chase a little bit more,” Corbin said. “So I think a combination of all of that, staying out of the middle of the plate. Everyone tonight did a good job — defense behind me, Rainey came in and shut the door, and then to get a couple big runs there by [Yadiel Hernandez] late was huge.”

How did the Nationals fare with runners in scoring position? They went 1 for 10, but the lone hit gave them the lead in the eighth. Washington turned to Hernandez off the bench with two outs and runners on first and second. He delivered a two-run double to right that gave the Nationals the lead.

Washington was 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position in the first two innings, but one of those outs was a Nelson Cruz grounder that scored Juan Soto in the first.

For the series, Washington is 2 for 22 with runners in scoring position — but both of those hits gave them the lead in the eighth inning.

Why didn’t Luis García start? The hot-hitting García had played in every game since being called up from Class AAA Rochester on June 1, so Martinez wanted to give him a day to rest with the team having another day off coming Thursday. Martinez said he was available to pinch-hit — and he did in the eighth. He grounded into a fielder’s choice but ended up scoring the go-ahead run on Hernandez’s double.

Alcides Escobar, whose injury led to García’s promotion, started at shortstop, batted seventh and went 1 for 3.

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