The crowd at Nationals Park had just had an opportunity to welcome Dusty Baker back to town, standing and applauding the former Nats manager in his first appearance here since October 2017. Then, within seconds, the applause morphed into boos as the visitors’ starting lineup was announced, the first such appearance here for the Astros since October 2019.
Thus was the stage set for the start of an emotional weekend, one that plenty of folks had eagerly anticipated for some time.
And then Jose Altuve blasted Josiah Gray’s very first pitch of the game off the top of the center field fence for a leadoff home run, and the mood instantly changed.
And then Michael Brantley followed with a double off the wall, and Alex Bregman followed that with a double down the line, and Yordan Alvarez followed that with an RBI single and then – with a quick break for an actual out to be recorded – Yuli Gurriel crushed Gray’s 14th pitch of the night deep to left and the Astros already led by five runs and all life had been sucked out of the crowd.
It would never really return by the end of the night, Houston cruising to a 6-1 victory that for all purposes was resolved before the Nationals even came up to bat in the bottom of the first.
"Misses," manager Davey Martinez said of Gray's first-inning struggles. "First pitch, last pitch, he's got to make a pitch. He can't just think he's going to throw a ball down the middle, especially when you've got a team like that. They hit fastballs. And today was a perfect example: When he missed early, he paid. They hit the ball hard."
It was a harsh reminder just how much has changed since the last time these two franchises met (in something other than a spring training game, that is). The Astros club in town this weekend bears plenty of resemblance to the one that won all three World Series games here some 31 months ago, aside from the obvious change of managers. The Nationals club facing Baker’s team bears almost zero resemblance to the one from the last meeting, when the stakes were so much higher.
Gray was a 21-year-old Dodgers prospect at the time, only one year removed from pitching and playing shortstop at Division II Le Moyne College. Tonight, he faced Altuve, Brantley, Bregman, Alvarez and Gurriel, all members of the Astros’ 2019 World Series lineup. And the results weren’t pretty.
The top of the first was an abject nightmare for Gray. Five of Houston’s first seven batters hit the ball with an exit velocity of 100 mph or higher, the hardest hit of them (Aledmys Díaz’s line drive to left) actually producing one of the inning’s few outs.
Gray gave up lasers off fastballs, off curveballs and off sliders. Nothing he threw in that inning fooled an opposing hitter. They were ready for every single offering.
"The first inning, the pitches were just right over the zone," catcher Keibert Ruiz said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "Right over, and they were making good contact. They were being very aggressive and taking advantage of that. But they were just too on the strike zone."
After that? Well, Gray actually had quite a bit of success. Only four of the final 20 batters he faced reached base, and only one of them recorded a hit. That, however, came in the form of Alvarez’s solo homer to center in the top of the third, the Astros’ third home run off Gray in the game.
"After the first, I was like: 'I'm gonna give the team as much as I can,' " the right-hander said. "And to be able to go six (innings) was a positive. So continue to make better pitches and go from there."
The ability to make an adjustment and enjoy some success was encouraging for a young starter. But a clean top of the first would’ve been preferable to everyone wearing a navy blue Nationals jersey tonight. (Yes, they broke out the alternate uniform they wore throughout the 2019 postseason for the first time in 2022.)
"He can limit damage," Martinez said. "His stuff is good. As you could see, when he settled down, he started hitting his spots, he was tough the rest of the night. We've got to get him through the game, get him to start right from the first inning on making sure he understands he has to go in, out, stay away from the middle and use all his pitches."
Some semblance of an offensive attack would’ve been appreciated as well. Alas, the Nats didn’t show much life at all at the plate against Astros lefty Framber Valdez, who allowed one run over 7 2/3 standout innings to extend his team’s winning streak to 11 games, during which time the pitching staff has surrendered a total of only 12 runs.
Scoring opportunities were few and far between. The Nationals had runners on the corners with two outs in the first, but Ruiz grounded out. They put a single man on base in the third, fifth and sixth but never advanced him beyond first. Finally in the seventh, they pushed a runner across the plate, but even that was made possible only by the Astros’ inability to cleanly turn a 6-4-3 double play on Alcides Escobar’s grounder, allowing Ruiz to score from third and avoid the shutout.
That constituted the silver lining of this game. There wasn’t much else for the Nationals to hang their caps on.
"We just couldn't collectively hit balls in a row, where we could do something," Martinez said. "(Maikel) Franco hit a bullet, and I thought: Here we go. And we just fizzled. We've got to get back to grouping up a bunch of hits, and some of our big boys hitting them out of the ballpark. That's what we need."