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."
Throw in a scoreless seventh from Carl Edwards Jr., a scoreless eighth from Kyle Finnegan that included a strikeout of the impossible-to-contain Kyle Schwarber and then a 1-2-3 ninth from beleaguered closer Tanner Rainey, and the Nats had themselves one of their most satisfying wins of the season.
Not to mention a long-awaited victory over a National League East opponent, only their second in their last 20 games within the division.
"That was a good win," manager Davey Martinez said. "We struggled for six games. The boys came out today and never gave up. But Josiah, for me, was the key. He kept us in the game the whole game."
Gray wasted no time making it obvious he was on his game tonight. Though he allowed a leadoff single to Schwarber, he followed it up with four consecutive strikeouts, one via fastball, one via curveball, two via slider. And for good measure, he and Keibert Ruiz teamed up to catch Schwarber trying to steal second on the 3-2 slider that struck out Nick Castellanos to end the first.
With command of three of his pitches, Gray was able to get swings and misses not only with his pair of breaking balls but also with his fastball for a change. (That was responsible for 11 of his 22 whiffs in the game.)
"It honestly felt the same tonight. Just throwing with more conviction," he said. "I kind of split the zone in half, get it to the top half of the zone. I had really good results with the fastball today, along with the other pitches. That's obviously encouraging for the next outing, and something to build on, for sure."
If only he was able to command one changeup he threw to the most feared hitter in the Phillies lineup.
Having tried everything else against Schwarber, Gray attempted to catch the big slugger off-balance with a 2-0 changeup in the bottom of the fourth. Unfortunately, he left that 88 mph pitch up in the zone and could probably see Schwarber’s eyes light up as he mashed it to right field for his first homer of the night, third of the series and fifth in seven games against the Nationals this season.
But wait, Schwarber still wasn’t done. He doesn’t just hit one homer per night. He hits two. And his sixth-inning drive down the right field on a curveball from Gray was just as jaw-dropping as the previous one, giving him four total in the series and now six in seven games against the Nats.
"I'll live with a solo shot here and there," Gray said. "As long as I'm executing my game plan, and it doesn't knock me off my path to execution and providing for the team, I'm fine with it."
Fortunately for the Nats, that’s all Gray was giving up on this night. He brushed off the Schwarbombs and just went about his business striking out everybody else in the Philadelphia lineup. He punched out three in a row in the fourth to give him eight total, then added his ninth in a scoreless fifth.
And when he struck out Darick Hall and J.T. Realmuto in succession for the third time tonight, Gray had himself 11 of them overall to establish a new career high.
"We talk about this all the time: When he can throw his fastball around the plate, and be consistent with throwing his fastball, that makes his slider a lot better," Martinez said. "He did that tonight."
Now, the Nationals just needed to get him off the hook for a tough-luck loss. Which they did with one clutch swing of the bat from García.
Trailing 2-1 in the top of the seventh, and having done very little all night against Nola, García stepped to the plate with two on and one out.
"Before he hit the double, I kind of muttered to (Erick) Fedde and Tres (Barrera) I wanted Luis to do something crazy," Gray said. "And obviously, he hit the two-RBI double."
Yes, he did. García worked the count to 2-1, then drove a fastball deep to center field and off the wall for a double. Yadiel Hernandez easily scored from second, with Ruiz hot on his tail and barely beating Realmuto’s tag with a barrel-roll "slide" for the go-ahead run that not only took Gray off the hook for the loss but now left him in line for the win.
"I was very happy and excited to be able to help in that situation," García said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "To be able to help JoJo get that win, especially in that way, off a big pitcher, I felt very happy and excited to be able to help the team."