Nats' Opening Day loss defined by Senzel's injury, Gray's struggles (updated)

CINCINNATI – A season of renewed optimism ran headfirst into a brick wall this afternoon. Opening Day saw Josiah Gray get lit up by a 33-year-old journeyman, the Nationals lineup get shut down by a 31-year-old making his first start in two seasons and their starting third baseman get taken out by a pregame ground ball.

An 8-2 loss to the Reds – a game that essentially was over after three innings – was demoralizing enough. The injury to Nick Senzel might as well have been a kick to the groin, one that came 90 minutes before the season’s first pitch was even thrown.

Senzel, the former Cincinnati first-round pick who signed for a modest $2 million over the winter in hopes of resurrecting his career, was fielding grounders during batting practice when a ball struck him on the thumb. Instead of trotting out of the dugout with his new teammates in his old ballpark for player introductions, he was getting an X-ray, which revealed a broken right thumb, according to manager Davey Martinez.

"It's awful," Martinez said. "He was in a good spot, and we were in a good spot with him. He was excited for today. And then just a freak accident."

"I was warming up in the training room, and I see him roll in," Gray said. "I'm not really paying attention, but I hear him saying something happened. I feel terrible for him, because obviously the significance of coming back here - he had a long career here - and for it to happen in pregame as well, that's a tough blow for him. I feel for him."

Utility man Ildemaro Vargas got the surprise, last-minute start at third base today, but there will be a new face there come Saturday. The Nationals will promote prospect Trey Lipscomb (who was slated to open the season as Triple-A Rochester’s second baseman) to make his major league debut at the hot corner, a source familiar with the club's plan confirmed.

"I'm going to sit with (general manager Mike Rizzo) after we meet here, and we'll come up with a plan," Martinez said right after the game. "I know Vargas is suitable at playing third base, but we definitely need another body. We're going to sit back and see what we can do."

The Senzel injury could’ve represented the worst development of the day for the Nats, except there was still a ballgame to play. And it didn’t take long for that to fall apart as well.

Given his first Opening Day assignment on the heels of an All-Star performance in 2023, Gray turned in the kind of start that continues to haunt him on a semi-regular basis. Unable to get ahead in the count, he was torched on too many pitches that landed right over the plate, including a pair of backbreaking homers hit by Cincinnati’s newest cult hero.

Nick Martini might not have even made the Reds roster, let alone the starting lineup, if not for several spring training injuries suffered by others. Then the 33-year-old playing for his fourth franchise since 2019 made the most of his opportunity.

Martini launched a second-inning cutter from Gray some 405 feet to right field to put his team up 3-0. One inning later, he drove a Gray curveball 389 feet to right to extend the lead to 7-0, credited with five total RBI while becoming the first Cincinnati player to homer twice on Opening Day since Adam Dunn in 2007.

"Getting the responsibility of going out there and trying to put the team in a good position from Game 1 ... I failed to do that today," Gray said. "But I think we all know how we're going to come back in two days and bounce back."

Gray, who had cut his home run rate in half from 2022 to 2023, put himself in a position to get burned by the longball by failing to retire the hitters in front of Martini. Jake Fraley got both rallies started, with a leadoff infield single and stolen base in the second, then a one-out double in the third. And Spencer Steer delivered RBI hits in each inning as well, setting the stage for Martini’s heroics moments later.

All that traffic on the bases drove up Gray’s pitch count, which stood at 69 innings after only three innings. Martinez already had left-hander Robert Garcia warming in the bullpen as the bottom of the fourth began, though Gray did retire the side in what proved to be his final frame, his day ending with 80 pitches across four labored innings and seven runs crossing the plate.

"The first inning, he used his fastball a lot more," Martinez said. "The fourth inning, he used his fastball. He's got to use his fastball, and he's got to throw more changeups, especially to the lefties. He only threw (three) changeups. But overall, look, it was his first Opening Day."

Down early, the Nationals lineup faced an uphill climb almost the entire afternoon. Not that there were any moments when it looked like that group might mount a sustained rally.

Jesse Winker, getting the Opening Day nod as Martinez’s No. 3 hitter, notched the team’s first hit of the season. And then promptly was thrown out trying to stretch that single to right into a double.

By the time Frankie Montas – starting the opener after missing nearly the entire 2023 season following shoulder surgery – departed at the end of the sixth, the Nationals had totaled four singles, zero walks and zero runs.

"We chased a lot of pitches," Martinez said. "We didn't do that in spring. We've got to get the ball in the zone and hit the ball hard."

The Nationals avoided the ignominy of a shutout, thanks to Eddie Rosario’s two-run homer in the top of the seventh off reliever Emilio Pagan. And the Nats bullpen – a perceived strength entering the season – churned out four innings of one-run ball after Gray was pulled.

So the final score perhaps wasn’t as lopsided as some feared it could’ve been earlier in the day. The Nats didn’t threaten the worst Opening Day loss in club history (11-1 to the Phillies in 2010).

That wasn’t much of a silver lining on a day that began with optimism but didn’t even make it to first pitch without something going wrong.

"We definitely didn't expect that," Rosario said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "It's never good to see one of your teammates get hurt at any point. But at the same time, we've got to go out there and focus on the game."

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