Nats can't overcome Gray's early exit, lose to Jays (updated)

TORONTO – It would be one thing if this dud of a start from Josiah Gray came out of nowhere, if it was a surprising blip on an otherwise clean radar and could be brushed off as simply a bad night.

Unfortunately, this felt more like the inevitable low point of a bad month for the Nationals’ young right-hander, who lasted only two innings while allowing four runs and digging his team into an early hole it could not escape during an eventual 6-3 loss to the Blue Jays.

Unable to find the strike zone with any consistency, and unable to pitch his way out of jams the way he did earlier this season, Gray wasn’t even given the opportunity to try to right his ship this time. Davey Martinez turned to his bullpen early in hopes of keeping the game close.

"I just didn't have it today," Gray said. "I feel for the guys in the bullpen. Having to cover six innings is never easy. I just feel for those guys. Obviously, want to continue to throw the ball out there and keep the team somewhat in the game. But I just didn't have it today."

The bullpen did keep the deficit within striking distance. The Nats lineup, though, couldn’t make the most of early scoring opportunities against Kevin Gausman, going 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position and then getting shut down completely by the Toronto bullpen.

Thus did they drop a series opener for the first time on this three-city trip. They’ll need to bounce back and emerge victorious each of the next two nights to pull off a sixth consecutive series win.

"I thought our bullpen hung in there, did well," Martinez said. "We got some runs off Gausman. And then we couldn't score any more. We've got to come back tomorrow. ... The walks killed us today. We've got to throw strike one, get ahead of hitters."

It was immediately clear this was going to be another one of those nights for Gray when he issued a leadoff walk to George Springer, then another to Davis Schneider followed by an infield single to Whit Merrifield later in the bottom of the first. He managed to wriggle his way out of that bases-loaded jam, conjuring up memories of last week’s five-walk, one-hit win over the Yankees, but it felt like he wasn’t going to be able to tempt fate again without getting burned.

Sure enough, it all fell apart for Gray in a laborious bottom of the second, this time with four runs crossing the plate. The frame included another leadoff walk, another walk two batters later, then three RBI hits, the final two when Gray was one pitch away from ending the inning.

And that’s as far as Martinez would let him go. The manager pulled his starter after 63 pitches over two innings, his shortest outing of the year but one that felt like it was several weeks in the making.

"He threw 40 pitches that inning, and I thought that was plenty," Martinez said. "He looked like he was struggling a little bit with his mechanics. Physically, I think he's fine. Mentally, he was forcing a lot of pitches. To me, I just didn't want to send him back out there."

In four previous starts this month, Gray had failed to complete five innings. Twice he failed to complete four. And the theme from each of those games, plus tonight’s game, was consistent: a lot of walks, a lot of pitches.

Throughout the first half of his All-Star campaign, Gray was able to overcome the occasional lack of command and heavy traffic on the bases and emerge successful. That is happening with less frequency these days, and it’s turning that once impressive campaign into something less impressive. As the calendar shifts to the season’s final month, his 4.05 ERA is the highest it has been since early April.

"I know when I'm in the strike zone, I'm a solid pitcher," he said. "I'm just running into trouble lately and not throwing the ball in the zone as much as I'm used to. We've just got to work on it and get back to being the pitcher I know I can be. ...

"This month has been pretty rough for me, in terms of doing that job. But we've got to get back to the drawing board in the next start and get back to the overall focus of keeping the team in the game."

Martinez’s decision to give Gray a quick hook meant he was going to have to ask for at least six innings from his bullpen in the series opener, the seventh of 13 consecutive games his team is playing before its next scheduled day off.

The Nationals’ relievers got through it, but it was at times a slog. Robert Garcia needed 22 pitches to complete his first inning of long relief, surrendering a homer to Danny Jansen, and that limited the lefty to two total innings. Andrés Machado needed 29 pitches to get through his first frame, allowing three straight Blue Jays to reach with two outs and another run to score, and that limited the righty to two total innings.

Only Jose A. Ferrer was efficient from the outset, completing a 1-2-3 bottom of the seventh on 15 pitches.

Though it didn’t necessarily feel like it, the game was technically there for the Nationals’ taking all night. They just didn’t do enough taking, outside of their No. 1 and No. 3 hitters.

CJ Abrams did a masterful job setting the table, singling in each of his first three at-bats and then stealing a base on each occasion, leaving him with 37 on the season (fourth-most in club history). He would proceed to score twice, each on a base hit by Joey Meneses, who singled home Abrams in the first and then doubled home both Abrams and Lane Thomas in the fifth.

Those clutch hits leave Meneses with 76 RBIs on the season, leaving him with an outside shot at reaching the century mark if he can drive in 24 more over the final 29 games.

Alas, there was precious little production from anyone batting behind Meneses tonight. As a team, the Nationals went 0-for-15 following his fifth-inning double. As such, they could never cut the deficit to fewer than three runs and get their starter off the hook for his abbreviated outing.

"It could be me today, one of my teammates tomorrow. That's just the way the game goes," Meneses said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "It's not always the same guy. Usually, it's one guy today, one guy tomorrow. That's just the game."

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