The way things have been going around here lately, it was perfectly fair for anyone inside the Nationals dugout – or anywhere inside Nationals Park, for that matter – to reach the bottom of the ninth tonight and just assume the home team was going to rally once again and pull off another walk-off win.
So when it didn’t happen and the Red Sox were the ones congratulating each other following a 5-4 victory, nobody quite knew how to react.
Despite trailing by that same score since the fourth inning, the Nationals never could mount one final rally to get over the hump. They had walked off the Athletics both Saturday and Sunday. They could not walk off the Red Sox tonight.
"They were making good pitches," catcher Keibert Ruiz said. "Sometimes it's hard."
In the end, the Nationals were left to contemplate the latest abbreviated start by Josiah Gray, who labored more than he has in any previous outing and wound up surrendering all five runs Boston would score, all of them coming in the game’s first four innings.
There were opportunities to get Gray off the hook, though most of them came early in the evening. The Nationals did not put a man on base in the fifth, sixth or seventh innings, and they wasted Dominic Smith’s two-out double in the eighth when Stone Garrett grounded out on the next pitch.
Strong work from what has become a dominant bullpen kept the deficit at one run an gave the lineup one last chance for some ninth-inning magic. But the bottom of that lineup (Jake Alu, Ildemaro Vargas, Blake Rutherford) was no match for Boston closer Kenley Jansen, who finished this one off to the disappointment of many (but not all) of a bi-partisan crowd of 23,516.
"Hey, Kenley's really good," manager Davey Martinez said. "He knows how to pitch. We battled back. I'm proud of our bullpen. We had six guys in there today that threw 65 pitches for six innings. That's pretty impressive. Unfortunately, their bullpen was pretty good as well."
Gray entered this one knowing he needed to work on his efficiency, having failed to complete five innings in either of his previous two starts despite racking up high pitch counts in each. It quickly became clear tonight would be no different in that regard.
Gray surrendered a leadoff homer to Alex Verdugo to put himself in a 1-0 hole. Worse than that, he needed 31 pitches to complete the top of the first despite facing only five batters, with only one other reaching base.
"Thirty pitches in the first. I knew it probably wasn't going to be one of the longer ones of my outings," Gray said. "I was trying to grind through it, give my team some length. But coming out of that first, I knew I had to grind to get some outs."
It remained that way for the right-hander, who kept putting himself in position to get out of an inning but kept finding ways not to do it without suffering at least some damage. He went to a 3-2 count on three straight batters with two outs in the top of the third, walking the first two, then surrendering a two-run single to Triston Casas.
"I feel like they were doing a really good job," Ruiz said. "Taking good at-bats, seeing the breaking ball and not chasing the breaking ball. But I feel like we have to do a better job attacking them a little bit more with the fastball. We've got to learn from that."
By the time he failed to retire either of the first two batters he faced in the fourth, his pitch count up to 84, Gray’s night was over. Martinez made the long walk and asked for the ball from his All-Star starter, whose sub-3.00 ERA is a thing of the past. After reliever Robert Garcia let both runners he inherited score, Gray’s season ERA rose to 3.96, the highest it has been since mid-April.
"The year's been the year. There's some good starts, some bad starts, some OK starts," he said. "I think the last three have been self-inflicted damage, more or less. One pitch away, but not getting out of those jams. I know things will turn for me."
Despite Gray's struggles, the Nationals were still very much in this game throughout, thanks to a lineup that kept putting pressure on Nick Pivetta and then finally converted with two key swings in the bottom of the third off the Red Sox starter.
After going 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position the previous two innings, the Nats came through in the third, getting two-run doubles from both Ruiz and Stone Garrett, the latter with two outs.
They would stall after that, though, stymied by Boston’s bullpen after knocking out Pivetta in the fifth, leaving themselves once again to hope for the kind of late-inning magic that has defined their post-All-Star break resurgence.
On this night, it just wasn't there when they needed it.
"We came back," Martinez said. "We kept it there for a little bit. We just couldn't score any more runs."