The night was supposed to belong to the kids. To CJ Abrams, the 21-year-old shortstop making his Nationals debut. To Josiah Gray, the 24-year-old right-hander who was given an opportunity by his manager to pitch his own way out of a jam at the end of his start.
And then 42-year-old Nelson Cruz decided to remind these young whippersnappers he’s still the most accomplished player on the roster.
With a pair of clutch hits – a two-run double in the fifth, then a solo homer in the eighth – Cruz lifted the Nationals to a 5-4 victory over the Cubs, stealing the show from his far less experienced teammates.
"He could be my son," Cruz said of Abrams, almost in disbelief at the thought. "It's nice to see those guys playing for their careers. I was in their shoes once, and I know what every game means, every at-bat. It is beautiful."
The eighth-inning blast, a 396-foot shot to left-center off Chicago reliever Brandon Hughes, was Cruz’s first home run since June 25 at Texas, an extraordinarily long drought for a guy who has launched 458 of them during a career that began in 2005 (the same year the Nats debuted in D.C.).
Combined with his earlier two-run double off Mark Leiter Jr., this made for a cathartic Monday night for Cruz, who on Saturday night notched the 2,000th hit of his career.
"I'm swinging at more strikes," he said. "My swing has been more tight. In BP, I hit the ball pretty good. Once the game starts ... I don't know. It's part of the game. I keep working. It's why this game is so unique."
Both hits ensured the Nats wouldn’t squander Gray’s quality start or Abrams’ debut in a curly W cap.
Despite allowing three runs via two more homers, Gray was having himself an effective outing. But with two outs in the sixth, a runner on second and his pitch count at 100, the young right-hander saw his manager emerge from the dugout.
Davey Martinez made that walk plenty of times during Gray’s previous 33 starts for the organization, and each previous time he immediately signaled to the bullpen and asked for the ball. But the skipper had recently hinted he might try a different tactic with his young starter one of these nights: Walk to the mound, look Gray in the eye and give him a chance to keep himself in the game. And tonight provided the right opportunity to do it.
"You don't have to say anything," Martinez told the young starter. "I'm not taking you out. You're going to finish the inning. This is a very important moment for you, and for us. You can do it. Come on, let's go."
Five pitches later, Gray hopped off that mound, let out a primal scream and danced back to the dugout, having recorded his 10th strikeout of the game and having taken an important step in his long-term development.
"Him coming out and having that full confidence sort of just amped me up," Gray said. "I got the strikeout and just let it out. It was a really fun moment."
It’s the kind of moment we grew accustomed to witnessing when Max Scherzer was the pitcher sending his manager back to the dugout. Now it’s time for a new generation to earn the right to finish what they started, and Gray did just that tonight.
"This is a moment we're going to grow from," the pitcher said. "I'm glad that he kept me out there with full confidence, and I got that out."
Though this wasn’t his best performance of the season, it might have been his gutsiest. He dug himself into a quick 2-0 hole on Ian Happ’s first-inning homer and Franmil Reyes’ RBI triple a few minutes later. He gave up another homer to Happ in the fifth, leaving the Nats facing a 3-0 deficit and driving up his pitch count.
But Gray also made a lot of pitches when they mattered. He had seven strikeouts by the end of the third. And got out of a jam in the fourth. And when he finished off the sixth with a strikeout of Patrick Wisdom on a 2-2 slider, he had rewarded his manager for the show of confidence.
"For me, it was one of those growth moments that I think he deserves," Martinez said. "And he was ready for it."
Martinez’s new shortstop also had an eventful night, more so in the field than at the plate. Called up from Triple-A Rochester less than two weeks after his acquisition from the Padres, Abrams went 0-for-4 with a strikeout as the Nats’ No. 7 batter. But he had plenty of opportunities to make an impression defensively, and he did so both in encouraging and discouraging ways.
Abrams was charged with an error when he came charging in to field Reyes’ fourth-inning chopper and uncorked a high throw to first. But he also displayed impressive range and a strong arm on multiple balls hit to his left, the best of them on Reyes’ grounder up the middle that required an off-balance throw to get him at first and prevent the Cubs from taking the lead.
"His angles were really, really good," Martinez said.
Only moments earlier, Abrams couldn’t quite get to Seiya Suzuki’s sharp grounder up the middle, this one eluding his diving attempt and winding up in center field for a game-tying single off reliever Hunter Harvey.
But by night's end, the young shortstop felt good about his overall performance.
"It's always fun to go out and play baseball," he said. "I'm thankful I'm here. Go get a W."
With Abrams, Gray, Keibert Ruiz and more to come, the young members of the Nationals hope there are many more W's to come.
"It's super exciting," Gray said. "For me personally, it gives me a little extra edge to go out there and dream on the future. These are the guys that can be your teammates for years to come."