If the last week of baseball represented a slow devolve of what had been an uplifting summer for the Nationals, the top of the first inning this afternoon was undoubtedly the low point.
Josiah Gray looked simultaneously lost and irate on the mound after a ragged opening frame that seemed to spell certain doom for the right-hander and his team against a Marlins club that has owned them the last two seasons.
But Gray figured things out just enough to stop the bleeding, and when his teammates rallied to tie the game against Sandy Alcantara, it looked like the weekend might just be salvaged. Until a sloppy top of the ninth spoiled everything and sent the Nats to yet another loss against Miami.
The Marlins scored two runs off closer Kyle Finnegan via two singles, a throwing error and another bloop single, taking a 6-4 lead they would hold in the bottom of the inning to secure the victory on a sweltering Sunday afternoon on South Capitol Street.
Asked to keep the game tied, Finnegan wound up taking his first loss since June 9. He got himself in trouble with a pair of singles sandwiched around a strikeout of Josh Bell, then watched the go-ahead run score on an ill-advised defensive play.
With two on and one out, Finnegan got Jazz Chisholm Jr. to ground to first, and Dominic Smith turned to throw to second for the force out. CJ Abrams then tried to turn what would’ve been an incredibly difficult 3-6-1 double play with the speedy Chisholm running down the first base line. His throw sailed high and wide of Finnegan, and that allowed the go-ahead run to score.
"I was just a little bit overaggressive in that situation," Abrams said. "I was trying to make another play, and wound up making a bad throw and it cost us. Learn from it and just move on."
Moments later, Bryan De La Cruz blooped a single into shallow right field for an insurance run, Finnegan scored upon for the sixth time in eight outings after a stretch of 14 consecutive scoreless appearances.
The Nationals put a pair of runners on in the bottom of the ninth but could not get either across the plate, and thus were swept at home by the Marlins for the second time this season and finish the 2023 campaign a wretched 2-11 against their division foes.
"The errors killed us. The walks killed us," manager Davey Martinez said.
The later events of this game helped mask it, but what happened to Gray in the top of the first can’t be ignored altogether. The right-hander entered this start needing better results after a ragged, two-inning outing in Toronto that made his All-Star first half feel further and further removed from reality. Five pitches in, he was already in some familiar trouble.
Though he threw five straight strikes to Luis Arraez, Gray’s fifth such offering wound up in the right field bullpen, the third leadoff homer he has surrendered this year. And even that wouldn’t represent the low point of the inning.
Three batters later, Chisholm lofted a high fly ball to left-center for what should’ve been the second out of the inning. Except as he camped under the ball, rookie Jacob Young looked up to the sky and experienced the first September Sun Monster moment of his big league career. Blinded by the late-season angle of the sun, Young helplessly watched the ball fall to the ground for a cheap double as his pitcher stood on the mound fuming.
Gray could’ve responded to the gaffe by buckling down and getting out of the jam himself. Instead, he lost all semblance of command and, for a moment, his composure as well. He issued three straight walks on a total of 14 pitches, two of them forcing home a run to leave the Nationals in a 3-0 hole at the end of the inning.
"I think that fly ball just threw me for a whirlwind," he said, "and I tried to refocus but obviously didn't take long enough to refocus and regain my composure."
When the inning did end, Gray took two steps toward the dugout, turned and looked back to center field and screamed in Young’s direction, a moment captured by cameras that did not paint the young starter in a positive light.
"Just not in character to show that much frustration out there," he said. "I already apologized to the guys about it. I feel terrible about it. I've just got to learn from it."
To his credit, Gray figured things out after that. He retired nine of the last 12 batters he faced, keeping the Marlins from scoring again. But with a pitch count of 86 after only four innings, he was once again pulled much earlier than he or his manager would’ve preferred.
"He wants everything to go right, not just for him but for the team," Martinez said. "He wants to be out there competing for six, seven innings. And all of a sudden, you start walking guys and giving up runs, things just get out of hand. You've got to be able to control your heartbeat, get to the next pitch and not let those things bother you."
That would’ve been the story of the game, but the rest of the Nationals did a nice job changing the narrative the rest of the way, thanks to an impressive rally against a reigning Cy Young Award winner.
Lane Thomas was front and center throughout. The recently resurgent right fielder launched a towering first-inning homer, turning on an 0-2, 100-mph fastball from Alcantara and sending the ball 431 feet down the left field line and reaching the rarely reached concourse behind Section 106.
"I'm just glad I squared up something on him," said Thomas, who had been 2-for-18 in his career against Alcantara. "He kind of owned me the first six or seven times I faced him. I'm trying to get it back somewhat even."
Thomas’ third homer in as many days was merely a precursor to what came later in the bottom of the fifth, when the Nats scored three times off Alcantara with a sustained rally that began with Ildemaro Vargas reaching on the pitcher’s wild throw to first. Vargas would scamper 270 feet to score moments later on Dominic Smith’s double, then Smith would score from third two batters later when Young chopped an RBI single past a drawn-in infield.
Young would steal second, and that would put him in position to score the go-ahead run on Thomas’ single to center, a hit that left the red-hot right fielder 7-for-11 with three homers and five RBIs in this series.
The Marlins would get the tying run back in the sixth via an error on Vargas, but both pitching staffs would clamp down after that and set the stage for a dramatic finish, one way or the other.
If only the final result didn't look all too familiar against this particular opponent.
"We did everything we could to win it," Martinez said. "And then we did some things not to win the game."