MIAMI – Back and forth they went all night, the Nationals and Marlins, each team stepping to the plate for its respective offensive half-inning, each team returning to the dugout having failed to score.
The Nats couldn’t touch Sandy Alcantara, who quietly might be the best pitcher in baseball in 2022. The Marlins couldn’t convert against Josiah Gray, then Steve Cishek, then Carl Edwards Jr., then Kyle Finnegan.
And so the two teams proceeded to take this scoreless game into extra innings, just waiting for someone to finally break through and emerge victorious.
That someone was the Nationals, who broke through with a run in the top of the 10th, thanks to Keibert Ruiz's RBI single, to take the lead. Only to give it - and the game - right back to the Marlins in the bottom of the inning.
Willians Astudillo's bloop single down the right field line scored automatic runner Jazz Chisholm Jr. from second, though only after a controversial replay review determined Ruiz blocked his path to the plate. Jesús Aguilar's ground ball up the middle then deflected off second base and into center field, allowing Astudillo to scamper home with the run that dealt the Nats an agonizing 2-1 loss.
"This one hurts a little bit," Finnegan said. "The base hit that hits off second base. We have a review that doesn't go our way. We feel like we did what we needed to do to win that game. So yeah, these ones sting a little bit harder than the other ones."
A game loaded with dominant pitching performances was decided late, with the benefit of the automatic runner placed on second base to begin all extra innings.
Luis García, who made the final out of the ninth, got to take his spot leading off second when the 10th began. Only moments later, he was racing home on Ruiz's line drive single to center off lefty Tanner Scott, giving the Nats the lead at last.
"Obviously, it was very exciting in the moment," Ruiz said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "The game was tied, and it brought us ahead and gave us the lead. But after what happened and the (end) result, we end up not pulling off the victory. So in the end, it's kind of like a wash. It doesn't really matter."
Tanner Rainey then had to try to strand the Marlins' automatic runner (the dangerous Chisholm) in the bottom of the inning to emerge with the save. He couldn't do it, not that he could do much about it. Astudillo blooped an 0-2 fastball down the right field line, and though Juan Soto made a strong throw to the plate, it was too late to get Chisholm ... except umpire Nestor Ceja initially ruled Chisholm missed the plate on his tag-avoiding slide, calling him out when Ruiz eventually tagged him.
The call would be reviewed by New York, and though everyone inside the park assumed officials were looking at Chisholm's left hand as he tried to nick the back corner of the plate, crew chief Ted Barrett would later announce Chisholm was ruled safe because Ruiz had blocked his path to the plate.
"That's something that I found out at the end, when they were announcing it as well," Ruiz said. "I wasn't aware of it. It's something I didn't feel I did it in the moment. But it's just something you learn from."
The game now tied 1-1, with Astudillo (who took second on the throw) in scoring position, Aguilar chopped a grounder up the middle that looked like it would be fielded by second baseman César Hernández for the second out of the inning. Except the ball caromed off the bag and rolled into center field, allowing Astudillo to scamper home with the winning run in unlikely fashion.
"Just a tough break," manager Davey Martinez said. "The ball hits the base. A bloop hit. A close play at home. Just bad breaks."
All this at the end of a night that had been defined by dominant pitching from both sides, albeit in different fashions.
Alcantara was so efficient, he was able to pitch deep into the night, ultimately tossing nine scoreless innings on 105 pitches to lower his season ERA to a microscopic 1.61.
"He's the best in our league, I think," Martinez said. "I really do. He's got good stuff. He was tough all night long, kept us off balance. You're not going to see anybody better than that right there."
The Nationals needed to turn to their bullpen beginning in the sixth inning after Gray’s pitch count reached triple digits early. Cishek was up first and proceeded to retire all five batters he faced, the first time the sidearming righty had enjoyed a 1-2-3 inning since April 19. Edwards finished off the bottom of the seventh by striking out Chisholm, then pitched the eighth as well to complete his 13th consecutive scoreless appearance since giving up three runs in his Nationals debut May 10.
Thus it was left to Finnegan to pitch the bottom of the ninth and try to force extra innings. The right-hander immediately got into a jam, allowing a leadoff single to Jon Berti, then letting him steal second to put the winning run in scoring position. A strong throw by first baseman Josh Bell on a bunt attempt nailed Berti at third for the inning's first out, then a fielder's choice accounted for the second out but moved the winning run to third.
No problem, because Finnegan proceeded to strike out Chisholm on a 98 mph fastball to close out a harrowing ninth inning and force extras.
"I'm trying to execute, he's trying to execute," Finnegan said. "And I was able to get him there on a good, high fastball. It's one of those things: He knows what I'm trying to do, I know what he's trying to do. I was just able to get the job done there."
Though both starting pitchers enjoyed the same end result, their respective paths to get there bore little to no resemblance.
Alcantara made ridiculously quick work of the Nationals lineup, pounding the strike zone, wasting nary a pitch and getting on and off the mound in a matter of minutes each inning. Through four scoreless innings, the Marlins ace had thrown only 48 pitches, a whopping 40 of those for strikes.
Gray, on the other hand, had to throw the kitchen sink at Miami’s batters to keep them from scoring. Through his first four innings, the right-hander totaled 82 pitches, 59 of those strikes.
The Marlins made Gray work by fighting off tough pitches; they fouled off 21 in total (13 of those coming off fastballs). And they produced six singles and a walk, forcing him to pitch out of the stretch for most of the night.
Gray, though, kept coming up big when he needed to. He turned to his duo of breaking balls to put away hitters, notching all six of his strikeouts on either sliders or curveballs. All told, he induced 15 swings-and-misses, all on breaking balls.
"Super-satisfying," Gray said of his outing. "They were making me work really hard early in the game, putting some good at-bats together, hitting some good pitches. It's a part of the game. Obviously, I'd love to go longer than five innings today. But I'm glad I got my pitch count up to 100, put some zeros on the board for my team and kept us in a position to win."
If only Gray’s teammates had provided even a smidge of run support while he was in the game. They rarely threatened to score off Alcantara, getting a couple singles in the second, solo singles in the fourth and fifth and then a gift double in the sixth when Jorge Soler couldn’t catch Juan Soto’s long fly ball to left.
The Nats couldn’t convert that potential scoring opportunity, with Nelson Cruz and Josh Bell each grounding out to leave Soto stranded and leave Gray with no decision in this game.
"We battled, stayed close in the game," Martinez said. "Josiah did great. I know the pitch count got up there. He got out of some high-leverage situations. He was good for five innings, really good."