Red-hot Soto climbing back up league leaderboards

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You know all that talk about Juan Soto having a disappointing first half, about being unworthy of the All-Star selection he received last weekend? It doesn’t really apply anymore, because the Nationals star is hitting out of his mind right now and bringing his season totals up to the kind of standard we expected all along.

With homers in both ends of Wednesday’s doubleheader against the Mariners, Soto continued his July onslaught at the plate. Over his last 17 games, he’s batting .400 (20-for-50) with four doubles, five homers and 19 walks.

All of that has brought Soto’s season OPS up to .892, sixth-best in the National League.

In fact, Soto now owns a higher on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS than Josh Bell, who for the majority of the last three months has unquestionably been the Nationals’ best offensive player.

With homers in four of his last five games, Soto seems to have figured out his power stroke before heading to Los Angeles for Monday night’s Home Run Derby.

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Bats remain silent as Nats are swept by Mariners (updated)

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Even in what everyone acknowledged from the beginning was a rebuilding year, the Nationals were supposed to have a competent lineup. Any group that featured the trio of Juan Soto, Josh Bell and Nelson Cruz, plus a couple experienced bats and a couple intriguing young guys, figured to score a decent number of runs.

Here, though, as the season’s first half winds down, is the harsh truth: This lineup has become one of the weakest in the majors. Soto may be starting to look like the best version of himself, and Bell may have produced at a level worthy of an All-Star selection, but the overall story is one of meek power, squandered opportunities and a whole lot of ground balls.

It was all on display tonight during a 2-1 loss that capped a dismal doubleheader sweep to an upstart Mariners club that has now won 10 in a row to thrust itself into the thick of the American League wild card race.

The Nationals? They’ve now lost 12 of their last 13, scoring an average of 2.75 runs per game along the way. They’ve now lost twice as many games (60) as they’ve won (30) for the season, limping into the All-Star break in meager fashion.

"We're not scoring runs," manager Davey Martinez said. "We've got to try to create something. We've got to mix things up."

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Game 90 lineups: Nats vs. Mariners

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It’s time for more baseball. After dropping the opener of their day-night doubleheader to the Mariners, the Nationals are back at it this evening with the makeup for Tuesday night’s rained out game.

Erick Fedde gets the start on the heels of one of his worst outings of the year. Pitching Friday night in Atlanta, he was roughed up for eight runs in three-plus innings. The issue, as it has been so often, was an inability to put away hitters. During one stretch in the second inning, Fedde got ahead in the count 0-2 to five consecutive hitters but didn’t retire any of them. He’s got to find a way to take advantage of those advantageous situations.

The Mariners, meanwhile, have right-handed reliever Erik Swanson opening tonight’s game but then intend to hand the ball to a familiar face after that: Tommy Milone. Yes, the same lefty who made his major league debut for the Nats in 2011 (and homered!) and then returned to pitch for them for a brief while in 2018. The 35-year-old has been all over the place during his career, but he’s still getting the job done, entering tonight’s expected “bulk relief” outing with a 3.60 ERA in four relief appearances.

In case you missed the news, the Nationals also brought back a familiar face to their own bullpen, calling up Tyler Clippard from Triple-A Rochester. That move, though, comes at the expense of Tanner Rainey, who has been placed on the 60-day injured list with a sprained elbow ligament.

SEATTLE MARINERS at WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Where:
Nationals Park

Gametime: 6:05 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN2, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Partly cloudy, 88 degrees, wind 6 mph out to center field

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Rainey goes on 60-day IL with UCL sprain, Clippard returns

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The Nationals placed Tanner Rainey on the 60-day injured list with a sprained elbow ligament between games of today’s doubleheader against the Mariners, suggesting the team’s erratic closer is out for the remainder of the season and potentially part of the 2023 campaign as well.

Veteran reliever Tyler Clippard, who has spent the last 3 1/2 months pitching for Triple-A Rochester, had his contract purchased and will be in the Nats bullpen tonight for the first time since 2014. But Clippard’s long-awaited return, while sure to please fans, comes as the corresponding move to a major injury to a key member of the roster.

The transactions were announced after reporters had already conducted interviews in the clubhouse following today’s 6-4 loss to the Mariners, so the full severity of Rainey’s injury isn’t yet known. But the decision to immediately place the 29-year-old right-hander on the 60-day IL – typically, pitchers go on the 15-day IL first before getting transferred later to clear a spot on the 40-man roster – suggests the team already knows Rainey faces a long recovery, potentially Tommy John surgery.

That decision hasn't been made yet. Rainey is scheduled to get a second opinion on his elbow, according to a club source, though ligament replacement surgery is a possible outcome.

It had been an up-and-down season for Rainey. He was unscored upon in his first eight appearances, then blew back-to-back save opportunities in May, then another in June. He converted four straight save opportunities in late June but then gave up game-changing homers on back-to-back days to the Marlins during the Nationals’ last homestand.

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Gray labors, lineup falters again in another loss (updated)

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At his best, Josiah Gray is really good. And last week’s dominating, 11-strikeout showing in Philadelphia was evidence of that.

At his worst, though, Gray really struggles. And today’s 6-4 loss to the Mariners, in which the young right-hander displayed virtually no semblance of fastball command and dug the Nationals into an early hole, was evidence of that.

Starting the front end of a day-night doubleheader, Gray served up three homers to Seattle batters, the most damaging of them Eugenio Suárez’s three-run blast in the top of the first, this coming shortly after he walked two batters while struggling with obvious fastball mechanics issues.

Combine that poor pitching performance with another weak offensive performance – at least until Juan Soto made things interesting with two outs in the bottom of the ninth – and the Nats lost for the 11th time in 12 games while the Mariners extended their winning streak to nine games.

The lack of offensive punch has been painful to watch, even with Soto's three-run, opposite-field homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth today. That blast did prevent the Nationals from being held to three or fewer runs for the 10th time in 11 games. But it still wasn't enough to overcome earlier woes at the plate (or on the bases, from Soto himself, as he fully acknowledged after the game).

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Cavalli's finger issue not believed serious; Abbott recalled

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Cade Cavalli’s removal from Tuesday night’s start for Triple-A Rochester was for precautionary reasons, and the Nationals’ top pitching prospect appears to have avoided serious injury.

Cavalli came out of Rochester’s game against Omaha in the fourth inning after throwing a pitch and immediately motioning to the dugout. Red Wings manager Matthew LeCroy told Rochester-based reporter Dan Glickman the issue was with a finger on Cavalli’s throwing hand.

“He had a little thing on his finger,” LeCroy told Glickman. “It wasn’t really a blister, it was a little small piece of skin that got pulled off his finger. He wanted to keep going, but we thought it would be best not to. I think we got it at the right time, so I don’t think it’s going to be an issue.”

Cavalli had been dominating for a second straight start, allowing one unearned run while striking out six through 3 2/3 innings. This after he carried a perfect game into the sixth inning of his previous start. Over his last seven starts, the 2020 first round pick sports a 2.15 ERA, 0.850 WHIP and 43 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings.

Cavalli, along with Single-A Wilmington infielder Darren Baker, was selected to represent the Nationals in Saturday’s All-Star Futures Game at Dodger Stadium. His status for that exhibition is unclear at this point.

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Game 89 lineups: Nats vs. Mariners

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Let’s give this another try, shall we?

After their interleague series opener was rained out Tuesday night, the Nationals and Mariners are now set to play two today. The postponed game will be made up at 6:05 p.m., but first is the originally scheduled 12:05 p.m. matinee.

Both managers stuck with their Tuesday night starters for today’s opener. So it’s Josiah Gray for the Nats, trying to pick up where he left off seven days ago in Philadelphia when he struck out a career-high 11 batters. And it’s Chris Flexen for the Mariners, trying for his ninth consecutive start allowing three or fewer runs.

Davey Martinez’s lineup Tuesday had Luis García in the leadoff spot for the second straight game. García may not necessarily profile as a top-of-the-order hitter over the course of his career, but for now it makes sense to have him get the extra at-bats instead of the struggling César Hernández or Lane Thomas.

SEATTLE MARINERS at WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Where:
Nationals Park
Gametime: 12:05 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Partly cloudy, 85 degrees, wind 7 mph out to right field

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Sánchez set to make first MLB start in two years

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Aníbal Sánchez last took the mound for a major league game Sept. 26, 2020, going 5 1/3 innings to beat the Mets. Since then, he has sat out an entire season, re-signed with the Nationals on a minor league deal, thought he made the Opening Day 2022 roster, proceeded to spend the next 3 1/2 months on the injured list with a neck ailment suffered on the charter flight north from spring training and made four minor league rehab starts.

All of which will lead to the sight of Sánchez taking the mound at Nationals Park on Thursday to face the Braves, his first big league start in nearly 22 months.

“He’s excited about it, and I’m excited for him,” manager Davey Martinez said Tuesday in announcing the decision. “He put himself through a lot to get back.”

Yes, he did. What initially figured to be a minor annoyance, a quick stint on the IL to begin the season, instead turned into an agonizing wait for Sánchez, who at various points along the way thought he was healthy again, only to experience more neck discomfort when he tried to ramp up his throwing program.

At last, though, he’s good to go. The 38-year-old made it through one rehab start at the club’s spring training complex in West Palm Beach, then three starts for Triple-A Rochester, and convinced team officials he was ready to come off the IL and finally make his season debut.

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Series opener rained out, doubleheader Wednesday

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With one massive storm cell having already swept through town and more expected later tonight, the Nationals’ series opener against the Mariners was postponed, with a day-night doubleheader now scheduled for Wednesday.

The call was made around 8:15 p.m., some 70 minutes after the originally scheduled first pitch and about 2 hours after the heaviest of the rain fell during a downpour that included intense wind, lightning and thunder.

The postponement might have been made official earlier if not for the fact this is a two-game series between interleague opponents who rarely face each other. With a 12:05 p.m. finale scheduled Wednesday before the Mariners fly to Texas to open a weekend series Thursday night, the notion of waiting it out tonight was intriguing.

But as more rain began to fall after 8 p.m., with more lightning visible and thunder audible, the Nationals announced the postponement and subsequent doubleheader on Wednesday.

The two teams will begin the day with their originally scheduled 12:05 p.m. game, with Josiah Gray (who was supposed to start tonight) getting the ball for the Nationals. Fans who held a ticket to tonight’s postponed game can now use it for Wednesday’s 6:05 p.m. game, with Erick Fedde making the start.

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Soto hopes Derby precedes another dominant second half

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Juan Soto could’ve skipped the Home Run Derby, and nobody would’ve batted an eyelash. He already put on a show last year at Coors Field, and given most sluggers’ reluctance to partake in the annual pre-All-Star Game competition, he would’ve been excused had he said no this time.

Soto, though, embraces the idea of going head-to-head with some of baseball’s best power hitters, especially on this stage. And then when you consider the positive effect last year’s Derby seemed to have on his second half performance, there was no way he was going to decline the invitation for Monday’s big show at Dodger Stadium.

“I mean, for me, it worked last year,” he said with a laugh this afternoon. “You see the second half that I had. I’m just going to try and see how it feels in there, and try to enjoy the show. At the end of the day, it was really good. It was really fun. I enjoyed it a lot, and I’m going to try to do the same thing. Being around all those stars, being a part of it, even if I don’t win I’m going to try to enjoy it as much as I can.”

Soto joins an already impressive field, with back-to-back defending champion Pete Alonso, Ronald Acuña Jr., Kyle Schwarber and Albert Pujols having committed so far, and three more names still to come.

“I would love to see Albert hitting bombs,” Soto said of Pujols, whose first Derby appearance came in 2003 when Soto was 4. “He was amazing when he was in his first Home Run Derby, and I want to see how fun it can be. It might be his last Home Run Derby.”

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Game 89 lineups: Nats vs. Mariners

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On the heels of a rough road trip against division contenders, the Nationals return home this week, with another four-game series against the Braves looming before the All-Star break. Before that, though, comes a quick two-game interleague series with the Mariners. It’s the first time these two franchises have met since 2017, only the sixth head-to-head series ever between them. (The Nats will return the favor with a two-game trip to Seattle next month.)

The Mariners, unfortunately, are as hot as any team in baseball right now, riding an eight-game winning streak into this series. They’ve done with excellent pitching, including from tonight’s starter: Chris Flexen, who hasn’t allowed more than three runs in any of his last eight starts. The right-hander shut out the Padres over 6 2/3 innings in his last start July 4, which means he’s had plenty of rest entering tonight’s outing.

Josiah Gray was great in his last start, striking out a career-high 11 in a 3-2 win at the Phillies six days ago. The right-hander will look to pick up where he left off tonight against a Mariners lineup that ranks 11th in the American League in runs and batting average, though seventh in homers and second in walks.

All of this, of course, is contingent upon the weather. The forecast isn’t great, with strong storms expected throughout the region late this afternoon and this evening. Given that this is only a two-game series, with a 12:05 p.m. start Wednesday, you’d think they won’t be so quick to postpone tonight. But as always, we’ll see what Mother Nature (and MLB) has in store.

SEATTLE MARINERS at WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Where:
Nationals Park
Gametime: 7:05 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN2, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Thunderstorms, 84 degrees, wind 8 mph out to right field

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Looking at the Nationals' potential trade chips

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We’ve reached the final week of the first half of the season, the All-Star break looming after that, not to mention the 2022 MLB Draft (which begins Sunday night). And then looming right after that, of course, is the trade deadline.

Three weeks from today, on Aug. 2, the fates of contenders and rebuilding clubs alike will be shaped with a flurry of deals. And though the Nationals don’t figure to be as active as they were one year ago, when they traded away eight players in the span of 24 hours, they almost certainly will be active.

A year ago, general manager Mike Rizzo was still trying to decide if he’d be a buyer or seller at the deadline. The events of a disastrous July made that decision crystal clear by month’s end. This time around, there’s no question if the Nats will be sellers. The only question is how many players will be dealt before the deadline.

Let’s be clear, though, about one key factor here: The Nationals don’t have the two big-time trade chips they did last year. There is no Max Scherzer and there is no Trea Turner for Rizzo to dangle to a contender and receive multiple top prospects in exchange for.

(Sure, Rizzo could theoretically put Juan Soto up for sale and see just how huge the return would be. But there’s been no indication from anyone that’s part of anyone’s plan at the moment. The Nats have given every indication they intend to continue to try to sign Soto long-term. And even if that doesn’t happen yet, he’s under club control another 2 1/2 seasons and is still viewed as the centerpiece of their next contending roster, if the rebuild proceeds as the organization hopes it will.)

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Barrera appreciates opportunity to return to majors

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As he stood inside the clubhouse at Nationals Park last week, seeing a few unfamiliar but mostly familiar faces, Tres Barrera felt like he was home.

“This is what you work for,” the 27-year-old catcher said. “This is where you want to be.”

Barrera hadn’t been in D.C. yet this season, not necessarily through any fault of his own but rather because of the organization’s increased catching depth acquired over the last calendar year. After spending a large chunk of the summer of 2021 in the big leagues, he was bumped down to Triple-A Rochester following the acquisitions and promotions of Keibert Ruiz and Riley Adams, leaving him the third wheel on a roster that only had room for two catchers.

Ruiz is the unquestioned No. 1 guy behind the plate, now and presumably for many years to come. Adams quickly assumed the No. 2 role after his acquisition from the Blue Jays last July. That left Barrera on the outside looking in, even though his performance at the big league level suggested he was worthy of staying.

In 30 games with the Nats last season, 27 of them starts, Barrera hit a solid .264 with an impressive .374 on-base percentage, two homers, 10 RBIs and a .758 OPS. He caught only one of 20 basestealers, but still managed to produce 0.5 WAR (per Baseball-Reference’s formula).

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Adon, Nats take another loss vs. NL East (updated)

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PHILADELPHIA – Joan Adon found himself on the mound pitching another game for the Nationals this afternoon, the struggling rookie with a league-leading 11 losses and an ERA approaching 7.00 pressed into service again when his club needed a fill-in starter.

The assignment, against a tough Phillies lineup, wasn’t advantageous for the young right-hander, but the Nats had little choice but to put him out there and hope for the best.

The end result was rather predictable. Adon labored through four innings and was charged with four runs, sending the Nationals on their way to a lackluster 5-3 loss in the series finale at Citizens Bank Park.

A game that saw Adon struggle on the mound and Juan Soto struggle in the field also saw Luis García depart with an apparent injury. The young shortstop was pulled after the sixth inning, replaced by utility man Ehire Adrianza due to what manager Davey Martinez termed a "stomach issue," even though García could be seen wincing and grabbing his right side after grounding out to second in his final at-bat.

"No, he started feeling real sick," Martinez said.

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Doolittle throws first bullpen session, Garrett goes on IL

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PHILADELPHIA – It was only 15 pitches, all fastballs, thrown with care off the bullpen mound at Citizens Bank Park this afternoon. But for Sean Doolittle, it was the most significant step yet in his attempted return from a sprained elbow ligament.

And the fact he came out of today’s session feeling strong physically was reason enough for Doolittle to remain optimistic about the rest of his long rehab process.

“The first one, you really just want to come out of it feeling OK,” the Nationals reliever said. “It’s a little bit like spring training. I haven’t thrown off a mound in three months. … I was really happy with how my body was moving. The execution was a little rusty, for sure. But the ball was coming out of my hand good. All around, pretty good.”

Since landing on the injured list in mid-April after only five appearances to begin the season, Doolittle has been waiting to get back to this point again. He knew at the time the partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament could eventually require Tommy John surgery, but his decision to get a platelet-rich plasma injection and then slowly build his arm back up after a requisite period of rest seems to have worked to this point.

There are still several more significant steps for Doolittle to take. He’s scheduled to throw another bullpen session either Sunday or Monday, still sticking with fastballs only, before adding off-speed pitches his next session after that. At some point after that, he’ll be cleared to face live hitters again, then go a minor league rehab assignment.

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Game 85 lineups: Nats at Phillies

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PHILADELPHIA – On the heels of the best performance of the season from one of their young starters, the Nationals now hand the ball to another young starter for today’s series finale at Citizens Bank Park, hoping Joan Adon can come anywhere close to doing what Josiah Gray did Wednesday night.

Nobody’s expecting that kind of dominance from Adon, but the Nats do expect/hope for some signs of legitimate improvement from the rookie right-hander, who returns after a brief stint at Triple-A Rochester to take the rotation spot that opened up when Jackson Tetreault went on the injured list with a stress fracture of his right scapula.

Adon faced these Phillies in his last big league start, June 17, when he allowed four runs on seven hits over five innings. He did strike out six and only walk one, and club officials were encouraged by much of what they saw, especially the way Adon finished strong by retiring the last seven batters he faced.

The Nats faced Bailey Falter during that same series in D.C., scoring three runs in five innings against the lefty. All three runs came off the bat of Josh Bell, who blasted two homers that evening and will be licking his chops to get another crack at Falter today.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS at PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Where:
Citizens Bank Park

Gametime: 4:05 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Mostly cloudy, 80 degrees, wind 7 mph in from right field

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Rainey finally locks it down, Cavalli dominates at Triple-A

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PHILADELPHIA – The Nationals’ 3-2 win over the Phillies on Wednesday was made possible by Josiah Gray’s six dominant innings (which included a career-high 11 strikeouts). It was made possible by Luis García’s clutch two-run double in the top of the seventh. And it was made possible by the lockdown work of the back end of the bullpen, most notably Tanner Rainey in the bottom of the ninth.

The beleaguered closer entered this game having just suffered through back-to-back ragged outings in D.C., blowing a save by surrendering a two-run homer with two outs in the ninth against the Marlins on Sunday, then taking the loss the following afternoon after serving up a 10th-inning two-run homer.

So when Rainey took the mound Wednesday night, tasked with protecting a one-run lead against a fearsome Phillies lineup, forgive anyone watching for having worst-case-scenario visions creeping into the mind.

No worries, though, because Rainey turned in his best performance in weeks, retiring the side to earn the save.

Things did get off to a shaky start. Rainey issued three straight balls to Darick Hall to open the ninth, forcing both Steve Cishek and Andres Machado to start warming in the Nats bullpen in a hurry. But once he responded with three straight strikes to Hall, the last of which notched his first strikeout of the inning, the right-hander was back on track.

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Gray, García, bullpen shine in gutsy win over Phillies (updated)

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PHILADELPHIA – Whatever happened in the final innings of tonight’s game at Citizens Bank Park, whether the Nationals hung on to beat the Phillies or suffered yet another loss in soul-crushing fashion, they knew they could walk off the field having seen two of their most important young building blocks thrive on a big stage.

What Josiah Gray did on the mound over six dominant innings and Luis García did at the plate in the top of the seventh mattered more in the big picture to this franchise than the outcome of the 84th game of this miserable season.

That the Nationals did proceed to hang on for a 3-2 win behind a strong bullpen performance only sweetened the deal.

In this season of development, Gray’s career-high 11 strikeouts over six innings of two-run ball were reason to celebrate. As was García’s clutch, two-run double to center off Aaron Nola in the top of the seventh, which turned a one-run deficit into a one-run lead and represented one of the most significant hits of the 22-year-old’s brief career.

"For us in the clubhouse, specifically, it's a lot of fun to see the younger guys contribute like that," Gray said. "It lets you know that brighter days are obviously ahead. And from the fan perspective, I'm sure they can bank on that was a really fun night of baseball for the young guys to contribute. ... For all of D.C. and Nats fan, I think it was a fun night of baseball."

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Adon to start Thursday, Soto returns to lineup

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PHILADELPHIA – Joan Adon will start Thursday’s series finale for the Nationals, rejoining the big league roster to take the rotation spot that recently became vacant with Jackson Tetreault’s injury.

Needing someone to pitch against the Phillies after Tetreault landed on the 15-day injured list with a stress fracture of his right scapula, the Nats opted to go with Adon, who returns after making only one start during his most recent stint at Triple-A Rochester.

The Nationals sent the 23-year-old down after 13 starts to begin the season in the big league rotation, wanting him to work on developing his changeup and improving fastball command. But only one outing later, he was back in D.C. to face the Phillies in one of their June 17 doubleheader games, allowing four runs and seven hits in five innings.

“He was throwing the ball well,” manager Davey Martinez said. “And as you guys remember, came up here and threw the ball well. So we’ll give him an opportunity to start tomorrow.”

The club sent Adon back to Rochester after that start, and he performed well in a June 22 outing against Syracuse, allowing one unearned run with zero walks in five innings. But then came a planned break, which has extended until now.

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Game 84 lineups: Nats at Phillies

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PHILADELPHIA – The Nationals are going to attempt to win a division game tonight. It’s not something they’ve done very often this season, certainly not recently. Their only win in their last 19 games against a division opponent came June 19, when they beat the Phillies, 9-3, in the finale of a five-game series in D.C.

That game was started by Zach Eflin. Tonight’s game is started by Aaron Nola, who on June 18 shut out the Nats over eight sparkling innings. His opponent that day was Josiah Gray, who tossed six scoreless innings of his own. And that’s the same matchup we’ll get tonight at Citizens Bank Park.

Gray was outstanding that afternoon, feeding off the sellout crowd for Ryan Zimmerman Day and gutting his way through a scoreless sixth inning as his pitch count reached a career-high 117. That was part of a dominant stretch in June for the young right-hander, but his July got off to a ragged start when he allowed six runs and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings to the Marlins. We’ll see if he can bounce back tonight against the Phillies.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS at PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Where:
Citizens Bank Park

Gametime: 7:05 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Mostly cloudy, 88 degrees, wind 7 mph in from left field

NATIONALS
2B César Hernández
DH Juan Soto
1B Josh Bell
LF Yadiel Hernandez
C Keibert Ruiz
SS Luis García
RF Lane Thomas
3B Ehire Adrianza
CF Victor Robles

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