WASHINGTON--Patrick Corbin looked through the Nationals’ roster following dinner Monday. He has worn No. 46 throughout his career and wondered if No. 45 was in use by anyone in the current group. Javy Guerra dons No. 48. Howie Kendrick wears 47. No one else is in the 40s, which meant 45 was free and could be draped across his back Tuesday when he took the mound.
His good friend, Tyler Skaggs, wore No. 45 during his five seasons with the Anaheim Angels. Back when Corbin and Skaggs were just getting started -- both 2009 draft picks by Arizona before being traded together to Arizona -- Skaggs wore No. 37, which Stephen Strasburg currently wears on the Nationals. So, it was No. 45 on Tuesday against Miami, when Corbin was tasked with gulping down emotions, clearing his head and recording as many outs as possible.
Corbin talked with manager Davey Martinez about whether he should pitch a day after his friend’s death. He thought it the right thing to do. Like the grieving Angels on Tuesday, Corbin decided he should go play, a decision part respite and representation. Baseball provided a break. Skaggs would want everyone to take the field.
Corbin controlled himself until a moment of silence for Skaggs -- who died Monday at age 27 of a yet-to-be-announced cause -- draped over the park. No external noise only clears the way for internal chatter. Standing in the bullpen, Corbin began to cry.
“You could tell, not that he wasn’t his usual self, but he was holding it in,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “And when we went out to the bullpen, he kind of lost it a little bit during the moment of silence.”
He reset, finished warming up, went to the mound and etched “45” into the dirt with his finger. From there, his chore of acting like a $140 million pitcher began.
Miami manager Don Mattingly looked on from the opposing dugout still not loose from the aches of 2016 and filled with unwanted familiarity for this process. Marlins’ star pitcher Jose Fernandez was killed in a boating crash in September of 2016. It shook and rerouted the organization. Mattingly spoke haltingly through tears at the press conference following Fernandez’s death -- similar to how Corbin would wade through his Tuesday postgame talk. At one point when explaining Fernandez’s joyful playing style, Mattingly paused then muttered, “Oh, God…” before reorganizing his thoughts. Skaggs’ death yanked Mattingly right back to the sadness and shock.
“Your heart goes out to his family and the Angel organization,” Mattingly said pregame Tuesday.
So, having been through it, does he have advice about how to handle it?
“I don't think.... now's not the time for advice,” Mattingly said. “It's more about just kind of thinking about them. Your heart goes out. There's not a playbook for how you go through it. You just try and get through the day.”
Corbin’s stalled in the middle of the third inning. Rain. Again. He retreated to the clubhouse during the 1:16 delay to keep his left shoulder loose. Corbin informed Martinez he was going to continue to pitch. He told Gomes the same thing. An hour went by -- usually when the bell tolls for starting pitchers in a delay -- but Corbin persisted.
“I just felt I couldn’t go [only] three innings for the team,” Corbin said.
He finished seven innings on 87 pitches before admitting to Martinez his legs began to feel heavy. Corbin allowed just a first-inning run, struck out seven and walked none in the Nationals’ 3-2 walkoff win.
Corbin waited by his locker when reporters walked into the clubhouse afterward. A casual greeting was met with a calm hello, then he began to explain his thoughts. He said he sought normalcy to navigate the abnormal. He was concerned about Skaggs’ wife, Carli, and the rest of the family.
“You can’t believe he’s gone,” Corbin said. “I’m sure it’s hard for a lot of people.”
It soon became harder for Corbin. Being asked to describe his friendship with Skaggs, he started quickly by answering that Skaggs was in his wedding during the offseason. Then, a pause came. Corbin’s head went down. His left hand rose to his face after he trailed off. He pinched his upper lip to temper the emotion, but grief had choked his words. Twenty-five seconds later, a summation came.
“He’s just all I’m thinking about.”
Corbin’s night was done after one more question. He gathered his emotions and belongings before exiting the clubhouse. Monday was the day of the news. Tuesday was the first day back at work. Up next: Wednesday.
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