With a chance to win a second consecutive series over a National League contender, the Nationals instead today did what they’ve done so many times over the last four months. They dug themselves into a hole with shaky defense and a penchant for giving up a big home run. And they did next-to-nothing offensively to give themselves a chance at coming back from that deficit.
So it was the Nats went down quietly to the Cardinals this afternoon, losing 5-0 in the rubber game of the weekend series and ending a miserable July on another uninspired note.
Fortunately, Saturday night’s dramatic win ensured this would not be the worst month in club history. Even with today’s loss, the Nationals finished July with a 6-19 record for a .240 winning percentage, narrowly besting July 2008 (.208) and April 2009 (.238) as the lowest points this franchise has experienced since arriving in town.
Now, though, the calendar shifts to August, and there is legitimate reason to worry the two months that remain this season could rival the just-completed one in terms of misery.
The next 48 hours will help determine that fate, as general manager Mike Rizzo decides who from his current 26-man roster to deal and who to retain before Tuesday’s 6 p.m. trade deadline. Given how many potential moves are on the table, Rizzo may not have the luxury of waiting until Tuesday to start the process.
The crowd of 28,738 that witnessed today’s game offered some extended applause for Juan Soto and Josh Bell, just in case this was the last opportunity to watch them in a curly W cap and jersey. Otherwise, the home team didn’t give them much reason to cheer, falling behind early and never seriously threatening to come back against Cardinals rookie Andre Pallante, who carried a shutout into the ninth before getting pulled after allowing back-to-back hits.
"That guy, he's been throwing the ball pretty well around the strike zone," Soto said. "He's got kind of a funky windup, too, and he was executing the pitches. That's what I see from him. I was battling, my team was battling, to (score) some runs. Sometimes the ball doesn't bounce our way."
Josiah Gray’s afternoon actually got off to a strong start. He struck out four of the first seven batters he faced, all via one of the sharpest sliders he’s deployed all season.
And he deserved a better fate in a third inning that saw the Cardinals score a run on a bloop double in front of a slow-charging Soto down the right field line, a wild pitch and a run-scoring weak grounder to the right of the pitcher’s mound.
The blame for St. Louis’ three-run fourth, however, was entirely on Gray. He issued back-to-back, one-out walks to Nolan Gorman and Lars Nootbaar on eight total pitches to put himself in a jam. Then with two outs and two on, he left a curveball over the plate to Corey Dickerson, who mashed it into the right field bullpen for a three-run homer and a 4-0 lead.
"Honestly, it comes down to the two walks," the young right-hander sighed. "Just uncompetitive, four-pitch walks to two guys I know I can get out. Really frustrating. And then almost getting out of there ... but just poor pitch selection there to Dickerson. Super-frustrating."
It was the 24th home run surrendered by Gray this season, most in the majors, the 43rd homer he has served up in 172 2/3 career big league innings.
"The biggest thing for me with him is getting ahead," manager Davey Martinez said. "When he was ahead - I think he was ahead eight times today - nobody got on base. When he falls behind, he had a bunch of traffic. Today it was almost 50-50 on balls and strikes. He's got to be effective in the strike zone and get early contact. But really, he's got to focus on getting ahead of hitters."
Today's performance leaves Gray with a 4.59 ERA in 19 starts this year, a number that doesn’t necessarily reflect how well he has pitched at times but also underscores how far he still has to go to live up to the billing that prompted the Nationals to acquire him in the first place.
"Finding that happy medium, that consistency, is a really big goal over the last two months of the season," he said. "I'm going to continue to work for it, and hopefully everything lines up my way. It's a matter of just trusting the process and going with it that way."
Gray, of course, was one of Rizzo’s centerpiece additions one year ago, included by the Dodgers with Keibert Ruiz and two other minor leaguers for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. More prospects of their ilk (or, ideally, even better) could be on their way here shortly as a critical week for the front office commences.