Strong start turns sour for Gray, Nats lose 98th game (updated)

MIAMI – As he’s done throughout his first full big league season, Josiah Gray did some things tonight that could only leave the Nationals encouraged about his prospects for long-term success.

Gray didn’t surrender a home run for the first time since June 18. And he didn’t walk a batter through his first five innings of work against the Marlins, keeping his pitch count much lower than he has throughout most of the summer.

But just as he’s done throughout his first full big league season, Gray also did just enough to turn what could’ve been a strong start into something much less satisfying. With a ragged, three-run bottom of the sixth, the Nats right-hander lost his shot at a quality start and left his team in a position to eventually lose 5-2.

Gray’s 10th loss of the season sent the Nationals to their 98th loss of the season. With presumptive Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara set to start for Miami on Saturday, they very well may take the field Sunday afternoon trying to avoid reaching the 100-loss mark for the first time in 13 years.

A lack of offense beyond Lane Thomas’ leadoff homer in the first and Joey Meneses’ RBI double in the eighth didn’t help matters. But in the end, Gray proved to be the story of the night, for both encouraging and discouraging reasons.

As he nears the end of his first full season, the 24-year-old continues to offer glimpses of what he could be while simultaneously offering reminders of just how far he still has to go.

"He's had a decent year for us," manager Davey Martinez said. "He's pitched a lot. We know he's pitched a lot. It's the most innings he's pitched. Now it's time to sit down and really contemplate what we're going to do with him next."

The Nationals managed only one run off Braxton Garrett the last time they saw him (July 4 in D.C.) so they had to be encouraged when Thomas opened tonight’s game lining Garrett’s second pitch over the left field wall for a leadoff homer and a 1-0 lead. Little did they know that lone run would have to hold up for much of the night.

Garrett quickly settled in after the Thomas homer, striking out the next three batters he faced and then cruising along from there. The Nats had a couple of opportunities with runners on first and second later on but couldn’t advance anyone to third, let alone get them across the plate. Not until Meneses doubled home CJ Abrams off reliever Huascar Brazoban in the eighth did they add their second run of the night. By that point, it was too late.

"You go up there and swing at everything, because you think you can hit it," Thomas said of Garrett. "And then you look up, and you're 0-for-3. I got him the first at-bat, and then I was 0 for my next 3. It was a tough one."

Like Garrett, Gray got himself into trouble right out of the chute. He opened his evening surrendering a pair of doubles sandwiched around an errant 0-2 curveball that struck Brian Anderson on the wrist.

But the right-hander fought his way out of that first-inning jam, turning as he often has to his breaking balls instead of his fastball. And as his night proceeded, he began to trust not only his curveball and slider, but a newly developed sinker that provides more downward movement than his four-seam fastball. And had success as a result.

"It sort of just developed naturally," he said of the sinker. "I wanted to get a fastball with a little bit more run, and then have my four-seam fastball as well. Just offering two different looks at the same velocity. Today, with the right-handed-heavy lineup, I thought it would be really good to run it back on the outside corner and run it in on their hands. ... I feel like that's going to be a really effective pitch at the end of the year and next year."

By the time he walked off the mound at the end of the fifth inning, Gray had allowed only the one early run. He hadn’t walked anybody. And his pitch count stood at a highly manageable 68, putting him in position to make it deeper into a start than he had in more than a month.

Then came the bottom of the sixth, and with that came a significant turn of events. Gray loaded the bases on a pair of singles and a four-pitch walk, then allowed the go-ahead run to score via a wayward, 2-2 fastball that plunked Bryan De La Cruz.

A subsequent RBI single by Charles Leblanc brought home another run, as did a 6-4-3 double play off the bat of Miguel Rojas. And just like that, Gray departed the mound at the end of the sixth inning having allowed a total of four runs on 92 pitches, ending his night on a decidedly sour note.

"Just super frustrating to get into the sixth with a low pitch count, one run given up, get out of a couple jams," he said. "I've just got to mix some better pitches there. It's super frustrating. It's just hard to do that through the fifth, and then in the sixth let it all go to (garbage)."

The schedule allows for Gray to make two more starts before the season ends, but it's still possible the club decides to shut him down before then. Whenever it happens, he’ll head home trying to focus on the good things he did in 2022, but fully understanding there’s real work to be done if he wants to be better in 2023.

"We're still going to watch it," Martinez said. "Now, with the uncertainty of (Patrick) Corbin moving forward, we'll have to take a look at that. But right now, I'm really on that cusp of what to do in the next two or three days."

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