The Nationals have any number of reasons to want to finish this 100-plus-loss season on positive notes, both on a team level and an individual level.
On a team level, the 3-2 10-inning win they pulled off tonight over the Braves thanks to CJ Abrams’ walk-off single most definitely qualifies as a positive note.
On an individual level, the six standout innings Josiah Gray pitched tonight most definitely does as well.
With his best start in more than a month, Gray nearly shut down the Braves’ potent lineup altogether, allowing Matt Olson’s solo homer in the second but hardly anything else during an 85-pitch gem during what might wind up being his final start of an up-and-down year.
That decision is still to come from Davey Martinez, who has repeatedly mentioned a desire to limit the 24-year-old’s innings and potentially shut him down early, but to date has continued to let him take the mound up to the season’s final week.
"He's making it tough," Martinez said with a laugh. "He really is. Because he wants to finish the season. We'll see how he's doing in the next couple days."
If Martinez does want to ensure Gray heads home for the winter feeling good about himself, tonight’s start would definitely do the trick. If only Gray’s teammates had been able to finish it off and secure his first win since July 6 in Philadelphia.
Clinging to a 2-1 lead most of the night, the Nationals finally gave up the tying run with two outs in the eighth off reliever Carl Edwards Jr. Luis García made a diving stop of Michael Harris II’s grounder up the middle, but his desperation throw to first skipped away from Joey Meneses, and that allowed Dansby Swanson to score all the way from second.
The Nationals kept the game tied, though, with a scoreless top of the ninth from Kyle Finnegan, but they could not do anything in the bottom of the inning to win in regulation, at which point Braves pitching had retired 16 consecutive batters.
Finnegan came back to the mound for the top of the 10th and stranded the automatic runner, giving his teammates another shot to win it. Victor Robles managed to bunt automatic runner Alex Call to third base, and after pinch-hitter César Hernández worked an eight-pitch walk and Lane Thomas grounded out, Abrams came through with a single through the right side of the infield, the Nats’ first hit since the fourth inning, this one a game-winner.
"Oh man, that was really fun," Abrams said of the first walk-off hit of his young career. "Close game, extra innings. That's a dream. It was a lot of fun."
The Braves fell to one game behind the Mets, who beat the Marlins in extra innings in a tight NL East race that will see the two contenders face each other this weekend in Atlanta.
Just as they’ve done for the better part of a week, the Nationals jumped out to an early lead. For the fifth time in six days, they scored a first-inning run, this time getting a leadoff walk from Lane Thomas, an infield single from Abrams and back-to-back flyouts to center from Meneses and Luke Voit.
And just as they’ve done for the better part of a week, the Nationals struggled to add on to that early run.
In this case, they got one more off Braves starter Jake Odorizzi, who only lasted 3 2/3 innings while throwing 68 pitches. That second run also was driven in by Voit, whose two-out RBI single to left brought home Abrams.
Otherwise, the Nationals were silent at the plate, putting plenty of pressure on Gray to be outstanding. Which he was.
His lone mistake came on an 0-2 fastball to Olson, which was driven to left field for the 38th home run surrendered by Gray this season, tops in the majors and already a club record. But unlike many of his previous starts, that was the only ball to leave the yard. And only two batters reached base without benefit of a hit.
"He controlled the strike zone, which was awesome," Martinez said. "That's what we're looking for. His ball had a lot of life at the end. ... He was really effective today, because he was throwing the ball over the plate."
Gray once again shifted away from his four-seam fastball after a couple innings and relied almost exclusively on his slider, curveball and newly added sinker to get him through the rest of the night. And he had real success doing it. The only hit besides Olson’s homer he allowed was a bunt single by Eddie Rosario against the shift. He never let more than one Atlanta batter reach base in any of his final four innings of work.
Perhaps most notably, Gray got quick outs via contact, notching only two strikeouts but relying on his defense to make plays. And his defense most certainly made plays tonight, brushing off Tuesday’s sloppy effort with a host of web gems from Abrams at shortstop and Ildemaro Vargas at third base.
"I think the name of the game is just pitching, just getting outs," he said. "Whether it's a strikeout, a groundout or a popout or flyout, just getting outs. And I think the last month, I've been able to just simplify and not worry too much about swing and miss. Just throw the ball in the zone, let the defense take care of plays. Today, they did an amazing job in the air and on the ground, and let me get through the sixth inning there."
With his pitch count only at 85 after six innings, Gray surely could’ve continued. Martinez, though, knew the back end of his bullpen was fresh. And he knew Gray needed to have an opportunity to leave on a high note for the first time in a while.
"At this point, we were trying to keep him to around 80 pitches," Martinez said. "And he came out, once again fought a little bit. And I told him: 'Look, if it was June, I'm going to let you go 110 pitches. We're almost in October. You did your job. Now we're going to pass it over to the other guys.'
"He should be proud of himself. He did well."