SAN FRANCISCO – Run support is a funny thing. It comes and goes, often without rationale or explanation. Some guys get tons of it. Some never get it. Some have no idea what they’re going to get from one game to the next.
Josiah Gray had been the biggest victim in the Nationals rotation, really in the major leagues, through much of April, the recipient of a grand total of one run from his teammates through his first four starts of the season.
And then something funny happened. The Nats started hitting on the days Gray pitched. They scored five runs April 25 in New York. They scored seven runs April 30 against the Pirates. And this afternoon, they torched left-hander Sean Manaea early and often en route to an 11-6 dismantling of the Giants, who scored four late runs off the bullpen to make the final margin look far more competitive than it was in reality.
That kind of support allowed Gray to cruise through seven innings on a cool, 57-degree Wednesday afternoon along the shores of the San Francisco Bay, earning his third win of the season and leading the Nationals to another series win on the road.
"It's been great," Gray said. "I think with our guys going out there early and scoring runs, it kind of puts you at ease. You go out there and make your pitches, and when you see three runs in the first two innings, it gets you at ease. You don't have to nibble as much. These guys have been phenomenal the way they've supported me the last few outings. I hope it keeps going, because when we're scoring runs early and often, we're a really good team."
The Nats have now emerged victorious in four of their last six series, no matter the location. They’re 10-9 on the road overall and head home with a better-than-expected 16-21 record to face a star-studded Mets club that’s only 1 1/2 games ahead of them in the National League East at this moment.
"It was a good day," manager Davey Martinez said. "A good way to end the road trip and get back home with a day off."
The only negative development of the afternoon: Jeimer Candelario departed the game one inning after an awkward slide into second base in which his right foot got caught in the dirt, twisting his ankle. That ankle was wrapped up after the game; Martinez said they'd have to wait to see how their starting third baseman feels Friday.
The Nationals put themselves in a position to take a happy red-eye flight back to D.C. with one of their best offensive showings of the season this afternoon, storming out of the gates to take an 8-0 lead by the third inning and knocking Manaea from the game as the Oracle Park crowd of 21,283 grumbled and, in some cases, booed.
Production came in all forms. The Nationals got clutch hits from Dominic Smith (RBI single in the second), Stone Garrett (two-run single in the third) and Joey Meneses (RBI single in the fourth). They also got a rare display of extra-base hits, with Ildemaro Vargas tripling home two runs in the third and doubling home another run in the ninth, and Lane Thomas lofting a solo homer to left in the sixth off reliever Tristan Beck.
But the biggest blast of all came from one of the least-used players on the roster: Riley Adams. The backup catcher, making his first appearance of the road trip after Keibert Ruiz started the previous five days, launched a three-run homer, the ball sailing 413 feet down the left field line to cap a four-run top of the second and set the tone for the entire afternoon’s proceedings.
"It feels awesome," said Adams, who was starting only his sixth game this season. "But I think more importantly, the whole lineup was hitting today. That's even more gratifying to see."
Nobody was happier about that than Gray, who had the luxury of pitching with a comfortable lead for a change.
The right-hander was no-nonsense from the get-go, retiring the side in the first on eight pitches, then completing the second on 14 more. He ran into a little trouble in the third, giving up a run on a Casey Schmitt double, then issuing back-to-back walks despite pitching with a seven-run lead. But he corrected himself after that and proceeded to retire seven straight batters, mostly ditching his fastball and relying instead on his slider, curveball and fast-developing cutter.
"In those situations, I try to tell him: 'I know we scored a lot of runs. It's easy to ease up,'" Martinez said. "'You've got to go out there and act like you're up 1-0, and you've got to make your pitches.' He did that very well."
Keeping his pitch count low, Gray got the opportunity to do something he had done only once before in the big leagues: complete seven innings. He did it last June 25 at Texas on 94 pitches. He did it today on 93 pitches, allowing two runs on five hits and four walks while striking out three.
"I think it's a goal for all of us to get six-plus," he said. "And to get into the seventh, you kind of dream of that. For me to work around a few walks, work around a few hits, to get to the seventh and feel like I had a decent, solid outing is always a plus."
In the process, Gray lowered his ERA to 2.96, which currently ranks 12th in the NL. His 3-5 record doesn’t look good on paper. But if he keeps getting run support like this from his teammates, the wins and losses will suddenly be an accurate reflection of how well he’s actually pitching.
"I think it's testament to how confident he is in all of his pitches," Adams said. "How confident he is in any count, any situation, runners on, whatever, he can throw them and throw them for strikes and get guys out."