It was all too perfect how the stars aligned for tonight’s match-up between the Nationals and Mets on South Capitol Street.
What was supposed to be just one of 19 meetings between division rivals turned into a convergence of past and future for the Nationals.
Max Scherzer made his highly anticipated Mets debut and return to Nationals Park tonight in front of a crowd of 25,677 that gave him another loud ovation as he took the mound in the bottom of the first inning. He returned the favor by striking out six over six innings en route to a 7-3 win over his former team.
And who opposed him from his former team? The two players that headlined the package deal that sent Scherzer to Los Angeles at last year’s trade deadline: Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz.
It’s almost too easy to call this match-up fate. The baseball gods had some fun with this one.
After signing a three-year, $130 million deal with the Mets in December, Scherzer was lined up to start the second game of the season behind ace Jacob deGrom. And that debut was supposed to be last weekend at Citi Field.
But after a 99-day lockout, the first week of games were rescheduled for later in the season, meaning the opening series was pushed back to this weekend.
No matter, since the Nats and Mets were scheduled to play each other anyway, only this time in Washington.
Then deGrom was shut down with an injury, giving way for Scherzer to start the season opener. And then Scherzer had his own issue to deal with, a hamstring strain that pushed his Mets debut to Friday night.
And wouldn’t you know it, that’s when Josiah Gray lined up to make his season debut.
With Stephen Strasburg’s season delayed while he recovers from thoracic outlet surgery, Patrick Corbin was tasked with his first opening day start since 2018 with the Diamondbacks on Thursday. That meant Gray got the Game 2 assignment.
“It was good. Josiah came out and pitched well the first few innings, he really did,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said of watching Gray’s season debut against Scherzer.
Gray did his best to keep up with Scherzer. He retired the first six batters he faced with four strikeouts. But after surrendering a home run to Jeff McNeil in the third, things began to fall apart for the young right-hander in the fourth.
He exited the game after four innings plus two batters, allowing eight hits and four runs in 80 pitches, just 47 for strikes. But heading into the game, Gray knew the significance of his battle with Scherzer.
“I thought about it a little bit, but I tried not to take away from the focus of going out there and pitching,” said Gray. “Obviously, you know Max is as good as they get. So I just wanted to go out there and try to match his zeros and keep the team in the game and put us in position to win. But try not to think about it too much.”
Scherzer thought about it in the other dugout, too, and felt emotional about his return to the place he used to call home.
“Just a crazy, wild experience,” Scherzer told reporters in the visiting clubhouse. “A lot of great memories here, but the team’s different. It’s not the same team I played with.”
That’s true, it’s not. It’s soon to be Gray and Ruiz’s team.
Ruiz tried to pick up the slack for the Nationals on the offensive side. He followed up his two-hit night on Thursday with another two-hit outing tonight, including a hit in his first at-bat against Scherzer.
Even though it might have been painful to watch Scherzer beat the Nationals in a Mets uniform, fans should still look at the big picture. While the Mets have playoff aspirations this year, the Nationals’ focus is more long-term.
Gray and Ruiz showed flashes tonight of how that long-term plan could play out. It wasn’t enough to beat Scherzer and the Mets in the second game of the season. But the idea is that it will be down the line.
And the young pitcher believes this season will benefit the both of them, while Nats fans watch it play out in front of their eyes.
“I think it’s going to be extremely beneficial,” Gray said of having a full season to work with Ruiz. “Our lockers are right next to each other, so we talk constantly. I think as he learns, I learn, and so on and so forth. So I think this year’s going to be really exciting for the both of us. And we’re gonna make a lot of leaps forward in the way we game plan and the way we attack hitters, execute third time through. Just rattle off things. And it’s only going to get better.”