After blown lead, late homers help Nats sweep Blue Jays (updated)

A lot of games are going to be wild rides for the Nationals as they close out this season. Some will end on a high note. And others, as we've seen a lot recently, won't.

Wednesday's game was another up-and-down affair that actually went the Nats' way in the form of an 8-5 win to sweep the Blue Jays in front of 18,336 at Nationals Park.

Gray Throws White Sidebar.jpgThe highs: Josiah Gray's fourth start with the Nats and late homers by Josh Bell and Carter Kieboom to deliver the victory. The lows: more home runs allowed by the Nats pitching staff and another near implosion by the bullpen.

Since this was a victory, let's start with the highs. Gray left the game after six innings of two-run ball and four strikeouts. He also matched his season high with 87 pitches while trying to get deeper into the game.

"He was good. He kept us in the ballgame," manager Davey Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. "He was real good. I love watching him go out there and pitch and compete. He's got a great plan. Him and Riley (Adams) worked (well) together today. He gets through innings with not a high pitch count, which is great to see."

Gray exited in position to earn his first major league win. He didn't get the chance to go any further in the game. Ryan Zimmerman pinch-hit for the starting pitcher in the bottom of the sixth, delivering an insurance run for a 4-2 lead, despite Gray recording his first major league hit earlier in the game.

"I felt great. Just felt similar to every other outing I've had," Gray said. "Obviously, a little earlier in the day, but felt great. I felt like my stuff is in a good spot. Obviously, a great lineup over there. But in general, I felt good and I threw the ball pretty well."

But after Ryne Harper granted the Blue Jays a 5-4 lead by serving up back-to-back home runs to Corey Dickerson and Marcus Semien (his second of the day), Bell and Kieboom took the lead right back in the seventh.

A leadoff single by Alcides Escobar brought Juan Soto to the plate and former National Brad Hand to the mound. After Soto worked his third walk of the afternoon, Bell drove an 0-1 slider over the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field for a three-run homer and 7-5 lead.

"Josh is quietly having a pretty good year," Martinez said of his first baseman. "He's got 20 home runs, 65 RBIs after where he started (the season). I've said this guy has done a tremendous job for us. He was hitting like .120 in the first month of the season to where he's at now, he's done really well. He'll start swinging the bat a lot better left-handed, I know he will. His right-handed swing right now is good. So we gotta get him going left-handed. But if they want to walk Soto, I'll take my chances with Josh Bell, I really will. He's doing awesome protecting Juan."

Two batters later, Kieboom sent Hand's first offering down the left field line for his third homer of the season and a three-run lead.

"Love the swing on that," Martinez said. "He got ready early, he was on time and hit the ball a long way. But that was good to see."

Bell and Kieboom's heroics were necessary because the Nationals pitching staff continues to be susceptible to the longball.

Gray gave up two solo home runs early in his outing. He has given up at least one home run in each of his major league outings and all seven of his earned runs as a National have come via solo homers.

Then after the insurance run in the bottom of the sixth, Harper made an unusual appearance in a high-leverage situation, issuing a leadoff walk and the back-to-back homers to give the Blue Jays a late lead.

"Hey, just one of those days," Martinez said of Harper's outing. "He's been great. He really has. I told him after the game, I talked to him, I said, 'Be ready. You'll be back in there Friday, so be ready to go. It's just one of those days.' "

But today is a day to focus on the positives. The Nationals did what they have done all season, no matter the state of the roster: battle.

Yes, the Blue Jays hit more homers today. But the Nats' longballs came with more runners on base. Yes, the bullpen blew another late lead. But Kyle Finnegan recorded the four-out save.

It feels like the Nationals have played a lot of close games that didn't go their way over the past couple of weeks. But this one did.

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