Gray tortured again by homers in ragged season debut (updated)

It’s never a good idea to infer regular season performance based on spring training numbers, but in the case of Josiah Gray there seemed to be some valid reason to believe what he did in Florida in March could translate into what he would do in Washington in April.

Not the 0.55 ERA Gray posted in Grapefruit League play, as impressive as that looked. No, the primary reason the Nationals were excited about Gray entering his season debut today was the fact he issued only two walks and did not surrender a home run in 16 2/3 innings of exhibition baseball. Given how much of problem both were for the right-hander last year, this felt like a good omen.

Well, it did for all of six pitches this afternoon.

Back-to-back homers to open the game set an ominous tone for Gray, who would allow a third before departing after five roughshod innings during a 7-1 thrashing at the hands of the Braves.

Ronald Acuña Jr. and Matt Olson did the damage in the first two minutes of the first inning, leaving Gray shell-shocked and a still-arriving crowd of 27,529 wondering what exactly just happened.

What exactly happened was a repeat of the 2022 season, when Gray served up a whopping 38 homers, most in the majors and most in club history. It came at the hands of one of the best power-hitting lineups in baseball, and it came on a warm-but-blustery day in which the wind was blowing out to center field at 20-plus mph. But it still happened, nonetheless, and it was an incredibly discouraging way for Gray’s season to commence.

"As much as spring training is to get your work in, you know you're not fighting for first place there," he said. "At-bats are more competitive. You have to be that much finer. I probably got away with pitches in spring training I might not get away with now." 

The 25-year-old took the mound with every reason to be confident following his dominant March. And he went after Acuña in a seemingly smart way, opening the game with back-to-back sliders for strikes to get ahead in the count 0-2. And then he tried to throw one slider to the Braves’ dynamic leadoff man and watched him loft it into the jet stream and over the left field wall for a quick 1-0 lead.

Next up was Olson, and Gray employed a different approach, starting him off with two fastballs. When neither of those found the strike zone, he turned to the new pitch he debuted this spring to considerable success: a cutter. That 92 mph pitch, boring in on a left-handed hitter’s hands, should be a winner for Gray, but it backfired spectacularly in this case when Olson drove the pitch 406 feet to right-center for a quick 2-0 lead that left Braves fans in attendance roaring and Nats fans alongside them grumbling.

"Just a matter of poor location there early in the game," Gray said. "I've just got to be better there."

Gray would settle down to some extent, inducing some weak contact and getting more swings and misses by turning to his slider and curveball. He showed last season he can have some success when he relies on those breaking balls, but ultimately he needs to be able to throw something over 90 mph to keep hitters honest.

"He can't run away from his fastball," manager Davey Martinez said. "It's something we talked about in spring training. Your stuff is good, and your slider is going to be really good. But you've got to utilize your fastball as well."

The Braves scratched out two more runs in the third on three singles, a walk and a full-count slider in the dirt that allowed Orlando Arcia to scamper home from third. And when Marcell Ozuna hammered a 2-0 cutter over the left field bullpen in the top of the fourth, the Braves had a 5-0 lead and the Nationals had ample reason to worry Gray hasn’t solved his home run dilemma.

A five-run deficit might have felt surmountable, but not for this Nats lineup against this Atlanta starter. Spencer Strider is one of the best young pitchers in the sport, and he already established his credentials last season when he struck out 202 batters in only 131 2/3 innings, finishing second in National League Rookie of the Year voting.

"He just has an incredible fastball, and he knows it," right fielder Lane Thomas said. "So you're going to get a lot of them. I know we were all trying to get ahead and try to do something with the heater, and it just didn't work out."

The Nationals looked helpless early against Strider, who struck out five of the first six batters he faced, Joey Meneses’ weak grounder to short the lone exception. They did start to put some pressure on the right-hander after that, only to run into the same problems that plagued them during their Opening Day loss.

Despite getting a leadoff double from Thomas in the third, walks from Dominic Smith and Corey Dickerson in the fourth and a leadoff single (followed by a wild pitch) from Thomas in the fifth, they could not advance anyone beyond second base.

So it was Thursday, and so it was again today. The Nationals are now 1-for-15 with runners in scoring position through two games, hardly a formula for offensive success, especially when nobody had come close to hitting the ball out of the park until Keibert Ruiz launched one into the third deck down the right field line in the bottom of the ninth.

It's only two games, but is there already a fear of guys gripping the bat too tight and making things worse?

"I think anybody's guilty of that," Thomas said. "You want to do your job really bad for the team and the skipper. You've got to just take a breath and, hopefully, get a good pitch to hit, instead of trying so hard."

That wasn’t a problem for Atlanta, which belted four homers this afternoon, Olson adding his second of the day when he took rookie Thaddeus Ward deep the other way in the top of the seventh. Ward, the Rule 5 draft pick making his major league debut, was handed a 5-0 deficit and turned it into a 7-0 deficit that left the hometown fans with little reason to believe a comeback was possible.

Adding injury to insult, the Nationals lost Dickerson to a tight left calf late in the game. Dickerson, who was replaced in left field by Ildemaro Vargas, will need to be examined on Sunday, potentially forcing the team to bring another outfielder to town on short notice in case he needs to go on the injured list.

"We don't know what it is yet," Martinez said. "He's going to go get a scan tomorrow, and we'll figure out what's going on."

Game 3 lineups: Nats vs. Braves
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