Gray dominates Phils to open series with win (updated)

PHILADELPHIA – The Phillies have been one of the hottest teams in June. Unfortunately, the Nationals can look back to when their rivals took two of three in D.C. at the beginning of the month as the turning point.

After the Nats won the first game on June 2, the Phillies won the next two to take the series. Entering this rematch at Citizens Bank Park, the Phils have gone 18-5 with a plus-39 run differential since June 3.

The Nationals needed to figure out a way to slow them down.

Enter Josiah Gray, who has had some past success in this ballpark in the form of a career-high 11-strikeout performance last July. The young right-hander didn’t quite reach that mark, but was just as impressive as he led the Nationals to a 2-1 win over the Phillies in front of 44,261 fans.

“It was a huge one," Gray said after the game. "Any win we get is huge. But yeah, this one definitely feels good. This is the last leg of our road trip and to start it off with a win, it means a lot.”

Gray dominated the Phillies over six innings, none more impressive than the final one.

Facing the top portion of the lineup in the sixth, Gray gave up back-to-back singles to Trea Turner and Nick Castellanos, though Luis García was unable to make a play on Turner’s chopper and Castellanos’ blooper landed right over the second baseman’s head in no man’s land. Both runners would steal a bag to put themselves in scoring position, but the right-hander got Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto to pop out in the infield on a combined four pitches.

Then came left-handed batter Bryson Stott, who already had two hits off Gray on the night. With lefty Joe La Sorsa warming in the bullpen, and after a visit from pitching coach Jim Hickey, Gray came back to strike out Stott with a high 95 mph fastball, his eighth of the night on his 99th pitch.

“I don't show much emotion, but I do in big spots like that," Gray said. "So definitely showed some emotion there. To get the popout to Harper and the popout to Realmuto on one pitch and then Stott had two hits off me all game, so big at-bat. He was seeing me pretty well. He pretty much saw every pitch that I could throw, so I just had to be a little bit smarter and attack him a little bit finer. And to get that strikeout was huge for the guys to keep us in the lead and keep the momentum.”

Inexplicably, fireworks shot up from beyond center field at Citizens Bank Park at the conclusion of the sixth, incidentally saluting the Nationals pitcher’s fantastic outing against the home team.

“This is something that we talked about. What he learned from last year to this year is staying in the moment," manager Davey Martinez said. "'Don't get all riled up if something doesn't happen right. Let's focus on the next pitch.' And he's doing it so well this year.”

Gray was in for a good night from the get-go. After issuing a leadoff walk to Kyle Schwarber in the first, he bounced back to strike out Turner, Castellanos and Harper.

He finished his outing with 19 swings-and-misses, six coming off his sweeper, which he has been throwing with more frequency over his last handful of starts.

“It tells me that the game plan is working," he said. "To get 19 whiffs and to give up one run to that lineup, it says a lot. It tells me that things are in a good spot, but they can always get better. Yeah, to have some results today is really promising, and I just want to take it into the next one. But definitely enjoy this one because it felt really good to get a division win for these guys and to keep us rolling a little bit. So just looking forward to the next one.”

Gray’s impressive final line: six innings, one run (on a second-inning RBI single by Alec Bohm), only one walk and the eight strikeouts on 99 pitches, 69 strikes.

“Right now he's in a good spot," Martinez said. "But he's gonna get better. He really is gonna get better. We talk a lot about the pitch efficiency. Today with six innings, 99 pitches. That's awesome to me. And once he gets to do that, the strikeouts are gonna come. We talked to him all the time, you want to strike out more guys, pitch deeper in games. That's how you strike out 10-12 guys all the time. That'll come, but the fact that he was able to control his emotions in big situations, stay in the moment and get big outs for us was huge today.”

The young starter was given an early lead in the second. After Keibert Ruiz reached first on a throwing error by Turner, Stone Garrett made the Phillies shortstop pay for it by hitting a two-run homer off Cristopher Sánchez.

Garrett lofted a low 82 mph changeup from the lefty starter 363 feet into the left field bleachers for his fourth longball of the season.

“I'm just looking for the ball up in my spot," Stone said. "It was a changeup down, but I stayed through it and put a decent swing on it and hit it out of the park.”

Is it hard when you're looking for a ball up and it comes down?

“I think it's just practice and the game repetition," he said. "Just trying to stay through it and hit it to right field. Getting it up in the air.”

Sánchez didn’t have a bad night. It just wasn’t as good as Gray’s. The 26-year-old struck out six Nats batters while inducing 15 swings-and-misses.

However, the Nats did have a good chance to add more in the fourth. Garrett hit what was originally called a double to left field but later changed to an error by Schwarber, and then an infield single by Dominic Smith put runners on the corners with one out. But Derek Hill was called out on batter interference while attempting to bunt and CJ Abrams grounded out to first to end the Nats’ only other significant threat to score.

After Lane Thomas’ leadoff single in the fifth, the Phillies retired 14 straight Nationals before Smith’s ninth-inning two-out single.

The Nationals finished 1-for-5 with runners in scoring position and left six runners on base. Not as bad as the Phillies going 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and leaving seven on base, thanks to Gray and Mason Thompson, Kyle Finnegan and Hunter Harvey (who recorded his seventh save) out of the bullpen.

“It was easy," Garrett said of playing behind Gray. "I got one ground ball, so it was pretty easy. He was lights out tonight.”

So it was that the Nationals won their third straight for a winning road trip and their first series-opening game since they beat these Phillies back on June 2. A big win.

Tomorrow they’ll have the chance to seal their third straight series victory.

“It feels big because those guys in there are really pumped up," Martinez said. "I'm happy for the way these guys are playing. I said before, they're playing the game the right way, they're playing hard. Some of these games, we're gonna have to step up and win some of these games like this, and we did that tonight. That shows character on their part.”

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