It was going to be the headline one way or another: Josiah Gray facing the Dodgers for the first time since last summer’s trade deadline.
The other reunions happened last night. Keibert Ruiz went 0-for-4 in his first game against the Dodgers, and Trea Turner and Daniel Hudson received a joint tribute video in their return to Nationals Park.
Tuesday night was Gray’s turn. And it wasn’t a ceremonious occasion.
Gray was rudely greeted by his former club in the form of a 9-4 loss in front of 22,418 fans at his new home ballpark. It was the second straight blowout loss the Nationals suffered at the hands of the Dodgers to start this three-game series and seven-game homestand.
Unlike his last time out against the Marlins, Gray’s game plan and execution didn’t work against some of his former teammates, who saw him very well at the plate. The ability to knock him around and make loud contact drove the Nats starter’s pitch count up, setting up a short outing no matter what adjustments were made.
“Just a lot of arm-side misses," manager Davey Martinez said of Gray during his postgame media session. "Didn't execute well tonight. He could have been a little bit amped up facing his old team. But coming into the series, we know about the Dodgers, and they walk and they hit homers. And if you look at what they did, he walked, home run. Walk, home run. Hit batter, walk, home run."
Gray’s four-seam fastball averaged 94.9 mph, but the Dodgers made solid contact on it all night. Of the 20 offerings at the pitch, they only missed four times, and they averaged a 98.3 mph exit velocity off it. And as Martinez mentioned, the three homers Gray would go on to surrender all came with two strikes and followed either a walk or hit batter
“Just like I said, just location," Martinez said of the homers coming with two-strike counts. "Just didn't finish. Like I said, a lot of arm-side misses. Couldn't locate his fastball at all. Breaking balls, some were sharp, some weren't.”
A rough night was in store for Gray from the get-go. After he walked Freddie Freeman in the top of the first, Trea Turner hit an outside fastball for a two-run home run. Gray was fortunate to get out of the first inning only down 2-0, but he had already thrown 40 pitches, and only 21 for strikes.
“Everything," Gray said of what wasn't working for him. "They were hitting the ball hard. I wasn't throwing many strikes. Nothing really went well tonight. So that's how I look at it.”
Gray also admitted after the game that he let the emotions of facing his former team get the best of him.
“There were a lot of emotions, honestly," Gray said. "You know, in being traded twice already, I guess this was my first opportunity to prove myself against a former team. So I obviously let the emotions get ahead of me and didn't control them from the first pitch on. But yeah, the emotions were there. Kind of just wanting to prove them like, 'Hey, you guys are missing out.' But unfortunately, the outing didn't go my way. But yeah, they were definitely there.”
Why was it important for Gray to send that message to the Dodgers?
“I think that's just the type of player I am," he said. "And being sort of slighted, I guess you can say. Since I've been in pro ball, I've wanted to prove my former organizations wrong in that they traded a guy that is gonna go out there and work his butt off. So, unfortunately, today didn't go my way. But I'm looking forward to facing the Dodgers again, facing the Reds whenever we face them, and going out there and just giving it my all and kind of just trying to put it to them.”
The Nationals offense did immediately rally against Walker Buehler to give Gray a lead right back, something they couldn’t do following a 2-0 first-inning deficit Monday night.
César Hernández singled and Ruiz doubled to put two runners in scoring position for Juan Soto, who recorded an RBI with a groundout to first. Nelson Cruz tied the game with an RBI single to right. And after Josh Bell singled up the middle and Cruz scored while the throw to third went into the Dodgers dugout, the Nationals found themselves with a 3-2 lead.
But it would be short-lived. Gray issued a single and a walk to set up Mookie Betts’ three-run homer – his first of two longballs tonight – in the top of the second to give the Dodgers a 5-3 lead. It would continue to go downhill in the third inning for Gray, who hit Justin Turner with a pitch to set up Chris Taylor’s two-run home run.
With his pitch count at 80 and down 7-3 after the third inning, Gray was done for the night. He was charged with five hits, seven runs, three walks, three home runs and a hit batter to go with four strikeouts, easily his worst outing of the season and maybe of his Nationals career.
"His pitch count got high, so we're hoping to get a little bit more out of him because our bullpen has been pitching a lot," Martinez said. "But I'm not gonna send him out there with 80 pitches after three anymore.”
Betts hit his second homer of the night on Victor Arano's third pitch to lead off the fourth inning and put the Nats behind 8-3.
Josh Rogers completed a scoreless frame in the fifth, but couldn’t get out of a jam in the sixth. With a runner on first, the left-hander issued three straight walks to give the Dodgers another run.
After that flurry of offense to start the game, the Nationals had nothing going against Buehler, who went on to retire 13 of the next 15 batters, including 11 straight, and 14 of the last 18 batters he faced to close out another strong outing.
“Yeah, we were aggressive up in the zone and then all of a sudden, he started getting the balls down, started mixing in more of his secondary pitches," Martinez said of Buehler. "And he settled down and pitched well. We need to stick to our game plan. We chased some balls out of the zone. Hit ground balls. And you know, we didn't get the ball up.”
Cruz's RBI single, his second RBI of the night on his third hit, off David Price tacked on another run in the seventh to wrap up the Nationals' scoring for the evening.
“Yeah, definitely feels better," Cruz said of his swing. "My approach is getting better also. I've been hitting the ball where it's pitched, so it feels good.”
Another sluggish night for the offense was probably predictable. An unfortunate setback for a promising young pitcher on an emotional night was not.
Cruz's message to the young players after yet another loss: “Just do your part. Come in, play hard. Give all you have and hope for the best. I believe we can bounce back and start doing good things and win games.”
The Nationals are now 14-30, only one game above the Reds' worst record in the major leagues.
“Just gotta keep playing hard," Martinez said. "We got to get better starting pitching. They got to keep us in the ball game. I know we're gonna hit. So we just got to keep battling. We gotta keep going.”