Nats ride Gray and bullpen to series win in Atlanta

ATLANTA – There are more than 5 1/2 months of baseball left to be played in 2022, and there’s still every reason to believe when this season is complete the Braves will be right there among the National League’s best while the rebuilding Nationals are looking up at a number of other clubs.

One series in mid-April does not change the outlook of either team’s chances this year. That doesn’t, however, mean the Nats can’t leave town this evening and fly to Pittsburgh feeling awfully good about themselves for what they just accomplished.

Shaking off a blowout loss Tuesday night, they bounced right back and won today’s finale 3-1, capturing the three-game series against the defending World Series champions and in the process establishing the formula for success they’ll try to mimic as much as possible over these next 5 1/2 months.

“I feel like it’s a confidence boost, right?” reliever Steve Cishek said. “You got a young team, and you take out the defending champs? I mean, their lineup is incredible. We threw the ball really well the first game and today. That’s a huge confidence boost for the young guys.”

The Nationals got a strong outing today from one of their young starters, with Josiah Gray tossing five scoreless innings, allowing only one hit. They got some early offense from an opportunistic lineup that jumped on Braves ace Max Fried. And then Davey Martinez handed over the final four innings to his four best relievers: Kyle Finnegan, Sean Doolittle, Cishek and Tanner Rainey.

Finnegan did surrender a solo homer to Austin Riley in the bottom of the sixth, but that’s all the relief corps would surrender. Doolittle and Cishek combined to retire all six batters they faced on a scant total of 12 pitches. Rainey then closed it out in the bottom of the ninth, eschewing an infield single by getting Marcell Ozuna to ground into a game-ending double play for his second save in as many opportunities.

“It’s fun,” Rainey said of facing down the heart of the Braves lineup with the game on the line. “It’s always a competition, and it’s my job to get out there and compete the best I can, hopefully lock it down and win the game.”

So it was the Nats who took two of three from Atlanta and finished what looked like a grueling opening week to their season with a more-than-respectable 3-4 record.

They did so by jumping on Fried in the top of the first, taking a quick 2-0 lead thanks to singles by César Hernández, Juan Soto and Maikel Franco, plus an RBI groundout from Josh Bell. Franco continued a red-hot run at the plate with his RBI single; by day’s end, he was 8-for-13 with seven RBIs against the Braves, erasing his 1-for-13 opening series against the Mets.

“After last series, we took a lot of first-pitch strikes in D.C., and the team had a meeting about attacking first-pitch fastballs,” said Bell, who went 2-for-4 to raise his batting average to .348 and his OPS to 1.048. “He put them in the zone, and we were able to get hits. It worked out.”

Though they wouldn’t plate another run until the sixth, the Nats did consistently make solid contact off Fried, who was helped by several sparkling plays from the left side of his infield. Then they finally broke through again, perhaps aided in part by Nelson Cruz’s comebacker that struck Fried on the inside of his right knee.

Bell and Franco followed with back-to-back singles, and that prompted Atlanta manager Brian Snitker to remove Fried from the game and turn to his bullpen. Because it was technically an injury replacement, Collin McHugh had as much time as he needed to warm up. Then Lane Thomas sent a deep fly to right on his first actual pitch for the sacrifice fly that extended the Nationals’ lead to 3-0.

Able to pitch with a lead from the outset, Gray did exactly what any manager would want a young starter to do: He went right after opposing hitters and didn’t give them anything for free.

Through three innings, Gray faced the minimum, striking out four with an effective fastball-curveball combo that bore plenty of resemblance to his 10-strikeout breakthrough last summer in this very ballpark.

“Being a pitcher, you see guys time and time again. And to continue to get them out, it gives you that extra confidence,” he said of his success against Atlanta over the course of two seasons now. “OK, my stuff is still playing. They’re still having a difficult time picking up my stuff. It definitely gives you confidence.”

Perhaps most impressively, he managed to keep the Braves off the scoreboard despite some wavering command his second time through the order. Gray put two men on in both the fourth (two walks) and fifth (one walk, one hit batter) but emerged unscathed thanks to a double-play grounder off Matt Olson’s bat and a strikeout of Manny Piña on his 82nd pitch of the afternoon.

That would prove to be his final pitch of the afternoon. Faced with the dilemma of letting him re-take to the mound to face the Braves hitters a third time, or turning things over to a very fresh bullpen, Martinez turned it over to his bullpen.

“He reiterated this early in the season, we’re not going to push you out there as much,” Gray said of the conversation with his manager. “It will be a different conversation in June, July. But at this point in time now, I’ll accept the five innings and hand it over to the bullpen. They did an outstanding job keeping the lead.”

Neither Martinez nor Gray would regret the decision, because they and their entire club are now heading out of Atlanta with a series win.

“Before the game, we talked about if the situation arises where it’s the sixth inning, this is the guy and this is how we’re going to line up and this is what we’re going to do,” Martinez said. “It worked out well today.”

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