PHOENIX – Even on an unseasonably cool, 79-degree evening in these parts, the ball always flies well at Chase Field, especially when the roof and outfield panels are open. A power-starved Nationals lineup took the field tonight hoping to take advantage of that in its series opener against the Diamondbacks and throughout the weekend.
Alas, one must actually make contact to have a chance to hit the ball out of any park. And on this night against Merrill Kelly, that seemingly simple task proved far too difficult for the Nats.
Behind a 10-strikeout performance from their right-hander, the Diamondbacks emerged victorious, 3-1, the Nationals once again unable to provide much run support for star-crossed starter Josiah Gray.
Gray wasn’t in peak form tonight, allowing three runs over five innings. But he would’ve needed to be perfect to best Kelly, who had the Nats eating out of his hand.
Even Keibert Ruiz, the best contact hitter on the team and one of the best in the majors, couldn’t get the bat on the ball. The young catcher struck out in all three of his plate appearances against Kelly, his first three-strikeout game this season and only the third of his career.
Ruiz’s teammates didn’t fare much better. Only Luis García and Dominic Smith managed not to strike out vs. Kelly, who cruised through his seven innings on 92 pitches.
"He didn't give us much to hit," manager Davey Martinez said. "He had good stuff. Good cutter, good changeup, threw his fastball to all four quadrants. It was tough tonight."
García did give the visitors a quick 1-0 lead when he sliced a ball down the left field line and inside the foul pole for a first-inning homer. But Gray also had to try to keep the ball in the park, and that proved a challenge.
The right-hander has shown massive improvement in that department from last season, overcoming the three homers he surrendered in his April 1 season debut against the Braves to allow just one over his next five starts. But he couldn’t contain Corbin Carroll in the bottom of the third tonight, watching as the Diamondbacks’ designated hitter mashed a 95 mph fastball to left-center for the game-tying homer.
Gray’s bigger problems actually came as a result of some sloppy defense one inning later, ultimately leading to two more runs.
With a runner on first and one out, he nearly snagged Gabriel Moreno’s line drive comebacker on the fly. When the ball fell to the ground, though, he mistakenly thought about throwing it to second base for a play that wasn’t there. By the time he changed his mind to throw to first, he was late and misfired, the ball getting past Dominic Smith as the runners advanced to second and third.
"I just rushed," Gray said. "If I could go back, I would take two more seconds to set my feet. But I can't do that, so I just have to learn from it and take two more seconds when that play happens again."
Even after that, Gray had a chance to get out of the inning unscathed. But with the bases loaded and one out, CJ Abrams fielded Josh Rojas’ chopper and made an ill-advised decision to try to beat the runner to second. He was late, and everybody was safe, giving the Diamondbacks the lead.
"CJ should've come through the ball and just got an out," Martinez said. "We're just looking for outs there to stay out of the big inning."
A sacrifice fly by Ketel Marte added another run, extending Arizona’s lead to 3-1 and representing the first time Gray had been charged with more than two earned runs in any start since that April 1 outing against Atlanta.
"It was an OK outing," Gray said. "I've just got to make one two more pitches there in the fourth. I've got to make the play. But it was OK. I kept the team in the game for a decent bit of it. I've got to get better, but I thought it was alright."
With his starter’s pitch count at 92 after five innings, Martinez decided not to push Gray any farther. Despite working with a short bullpen – Kyle Finnegan and Hunter Harvey were both unavailable after pitching three straight days – Martinez turned to Erasmo Ramirez to keep the game close.
The veteran reliever did that, tossing a couple of scoreless innings, and Hobie Harris added a scoreless ninth. But the Nationals lineup didn’t do its part to rally late, left to accept the one run it scored early against a dominant opposing starter. Even if some members of that lineup believed Kelly wasn't quite as dominant as his final line appeared.
"I don't think he was really tough to make contact (against)," Ruiz said. "I just don't feel like I was feeling a couple days ago. Not using my legs, not using the same approach. I need to go back to keeping it simple and not try to do too much."