WASHINGTON, D.C. — Four starts against the Phillies, four wins for the Nationals behind Patrick Corbin.
Six innings, three runs on May 4. Seven innings, one run on June 19. A quality start with 10 strikeouts on July 13. And on Monday, six innings of one-run ball.
Monday's 7-2 Phillies loss made their tragic number the loneliest number. If the Phillies lose either game of the doubleheader, or if the Brewers win, the Phillies' playoff hopes will finally die on Tuesday.
As for Corbin, well, he played a pretty crucial role in the 2019 NL wild-card race. It has been a career year for the 30-year-old left-hander, who signed a six-year, $140 million contract with the Nationals about three months before Bryce Harper signed with the Phillies.
Corbin is 14-7 this season with a 3.05 ERA in 32 starts. He will reach 200 innings for the third time in his career and unless he gets hit around in his final start this weekend, he will finish with his lowest ERA ever. That is especially impressive with the MLB average ERA soaring from 4.14 last season to 4.51 this season.
Corbin's slider is one of the best in baseball. A lot of the time, he doesn't even need to throw it for a strike. It looks like a strike out of the hand but just sweeps and dives out of the zone until the hitter flails over it. His opponents hit .148 against the slider last season and .156 this season. The Phillies swung through 10 of his sliders on Monday and went 0 for 8 against Corbin with runners in scoring position.
"He's just got a good fastball-slider combination. Both of his pitches look the same to our guys," manager Gabe Kapler said. "That's why he's been so successful in this league. You're not sure which is coming at any given time. It boils down to good stuff and being able to throw it below the zone."
Corbin has been one of the five best starting pitchers in the NL. Rank them however you'd like, that group includes Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Corbin, Stephen Strasburg and either Walker Buehler or Jack Flaherty.
The Phillies' slide began in mid-June, which is right around the same time Corbin turned it on. In 18 starts since June 19, he is 9-2 with a 2.24 ERA.
The Phillies did not like the idea this past offseason of committing six years to Corbin. That was understandable at the time. Contracts that long for starting pitchers rarely work. If you pay big money for six years and get four strong ones, it's a win.
Who knows how Corbin's deal will play out? There might be a season lost to injury. In Year 6, when he's in his mid-30s, he may be more of a back-end rotation piece. That's almost the cost of doing business when it comes to signing a free-agent ace.
It's hard not to look back at that contract and wonder, what if? What if the Phillies did make an exception for Corbin and still did everything else they did this offseason? With a 1-2 punch of Aaron Nola and Corbin, would this team be leading the wild-card standings or would all of the pitching injuries still have crippled them?
Impossible to say. But Corbin this season has solidified himself as a legit ace, the same way Anthony Rendon has solidified himself as a legit superstar. Corbin is better than any pitcher the Phillies have and Rendon is better than any of their hitters. Say what you will about the Nationals' constant October disappointments, there is no denying the immense individual talent they've collected through drafting, developing and signing players. That collection of talent is why Washington ran away from the Phillies and hid after a slow start.
This winter's free-agent class contains a handful of interesting starting pitchers. Gerrit Cole is the obvious big fish. Zack Wheeler might prove to be the best buy. Madison Bumgarner will draw a ton of attention. Cole Hamels, coming off a six-year contract of his own, could be viewed as a worthwhile short-term investment.
The drastic pitching misevaluations the Phillies made all throughout 2019 tend to result in people losing their jobs. Passing on Corbin was palatable at the time because it was expected the Phillies would eventually add more starting pitching. But they didn't, outside of salary-dump pickups and waiver claims.
Had they signed Corbin this past offseason, they'd be in a better place now and heading into 2020, though it would have also resulted in less flexibility to supplement Harper and J.T. Realmuto with another position player star in the future. If the Phillies do end up with Rendon, Cole or a player of that ilk, the Corbin decision won't look like as much of a mistake.
But if the Phillies don't end up with another impact player or two this offseason and another year of the primes of Harper and Realmuto go by, that Corbin decision will be harder to justify.
He'll get a chance to remind them why three, four, five times every year through 2024.
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