Gray battles command issues, Finnegan battles fortune in loss to Braves (updated)

ATLANTA – The Nats are in the middle of a brutal stretch. Tonight began the fifth of six straight series in which they are facing division leaders, defending pennant winners and reigning world champions.

No one is going to feel sorry for them. But this 3-2 loss to the Braves in front of 40,297 at Truist Park felt pretty painful, with a one-run lead turning into a one-run deficit in the bottom of the eighth.

“Tough loss," manager Davey Martinez said after the game. "We played well 'til the bottom of the eighth. As I always say, when you give good teams extra outs, they're gonna get you. And that's what we did in the bottom of the eighth.”

With the Nationals six outs away from a series-opening victory, Kyle Finnegan ran into some tough luck in the bottom of the eighth as the Braves scored two runs (one earned) to take the lead and extend Atlanta’s streak of five straight come-from-behind victories and six straight wins overall.

Finnegan took a liner from Sean Murphy off the lower half of his body for a leadoff infield single. Then another single by Eddie Rosario just got past Luis García and the batter advanced to second on an error by Lane Thomas in right field to put two in scoring position.

The tough luck for Finnegan continued as he got Marcell Ozuna to hit a chopper to Dominic Smith, who couldn't handle it cleanly enough to make a throw home and had to settle for the out at first. Then CJ Abrams couldn’t get to a grounder up the middle as the second run crossed the plate.

“It popped out," Smith said of the chopper. "Ball popped out.”

“He couldn't get it out of his glove," Martinez said. "And he did the right thing. Instead of throwing it home, he took the out. CJ just played a bad bounce on his ball. But he rebounded back and got the next one, got an out there. But I felt bad for Finnegan. He got a big popup, then a ground ball, which we could have possibly got the guy at home. We couldn't do that and then another error.”

Finnegan last pitched one week ago. But the extra rest didn't create any rust as he was getting the ground balls he's used to getting. The defense just couldn't convert them into outs behind him.

“I felt good. I felt fine," Finnegan said. "Kept the ball down and was able to get them on the ground. It just didn't bounce our way tonight. The game is like that sometimes, so we'll come back ready to play tomorrow.”

“He threw ground balls," Martinez said. "He threw the ball really well. So we got to make those plays. They really do. Like I said, when you play like this, you play a tough game like that, those plays need to be made.”

Starter Josiah Gray battled command issues all night. Many of his curveballs and sliders – which he combined to throw almost 60 percent of the time – hit the dirt in front of Keibert Ruiz, and some even got away from the catcher.

He issued a walk, a stolen base, another walk and then his first wild pitch with two outs in the first. He walked Ozzie Albies and threw back-to-back wild pitches to put a runner on third with no outs in the second, and Albies would come around to score on a groundout to short. And Gray gave up a single, a wild pitch and a walk in the fourth.

“Honestly, I think it was just they were low, and Keibert probably just had a little difficulty catching them," Gray said of his pitches in the dirt. "But it is what it is. It's part of the game. It sucks to see him move up those bases. But it is what it is and I pitched around it, I thought, well to get the ground out there to (Orlando) Arcia ... just to get that inning over with and not let it snowball. So I think that was the big takeaway, is just to not let the inning snowball if a runner gets on and just keep the team in the game.”

Somehow, Gray held the Braves to just two hits and one run with six strikeouts over his five innings, despite the four walks and four wild pitches. His most impressive inning was the third, when he got back-to-back strikeouts of Matt Olson and Austin Riley to end the frame, both with curveballs.

As they were last year, the walks have been an issue for Gray lately. He led the National League with 66 in 2022, and has now given three free passes or more in five of his last six starts, for a total of 37 on the season, fifth-most in the majors.

“A lot of walks," Martinez said. "But when he needed to get an out, he got some big outs for us. But we got to get him back. His direction's off a little bit. So his next bullpen we're gonna sit down and work on his direction, get his head going in the right direction and get him back in that strike zone.”

But Gray has battled enough to keep his team in those games and, sometimes with the help of the offense, helped the Nats win four over his last six starts. It just didn't happen tonight.

“I think the first inning, I wish I could have gotten out of there quicker," Gray said. "I got two quick outs off (Ronald Acuña Jr.) and Olson there. So, if I get the next hitter out a little quicker, probably able to go a little bit deeper in this game and give the team a chance. I thought my stuff was pretty good today. But the first inning, I think, just got to limit the walks a little bit. Hits are gonna happen. That's part of the game. But I gotta eliminate, especially the four-pitch walk to Austin Riley right there, and Murphy was a decent at-bat, but just eliminating those, I think, is probably the biggest thing that sits with me right now.”

And once again, the offense helped just enough to give the Nats a lead, though they were also aided by errors from the Braves defense. The Nats put up two runs, both unearned, against 20-year-old rookie right-hander AJ Smith-Shawver, who was making his first major league start and just his second appearance.

Thomas got it started from the get-go with a leadoff single and stolen base in the top of the first. He then advanced to third when Sean Murphy’s throw to second on the stealing attempt ended up in the outfield. García immediately drove Thomas in with a single to right for a quick 1-0 lead.

Thomas would come around to score again in the sixth when he reached on a fielding error by shortstop Arcia and reached second safely on a ground ball by García. He was originally called out, but the call was reversed on a successful Nats challenge. That put him in scoring position for Joey Meneses’ RBI double to center, giving the Nats a 2-1 lead.

This was Gray's his fourth straight start in which he did not complete six innings.

So the Nats needed a bridge to the back end of their bullpen in the sixth. Mason Thompson, entering tonight with a streak of three appearances without giving up an earned run, was that bridge tonight.

He started the frame with back-to-back strikeouts, but then got in a jam with back-to-back singles. He escaped the runners-on-the-corners situation by getting Arcia to hit one back to the mound for an easy out at first.

But the Nats couldn’t tack on more runs late in the game, nor could they convert outs when they needed to the most.

“Keep coming to the ballpark grinding, trying to get better and just figure out ways to pull out these close ballgames," Smith said. "That's all we can do. Learn from the mistakes, come back the next day, work harder.”

Nats trying to get Gray's delivery closed back up
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