MIAMI – The Nationals have found enough offense to play .500 ball since the first week of the season. Without a lack of a true power source, it was a serious question of how they would generate runs this season.
Since that 1-6 start, they have found that their style of baseball is good enough to win games and score runs in a variety of ways, even without a lot of longballs.
That style was on full display tonight in what appeared to be a 4-2 win over the Marlins. But a walk-off two-run home run by Jorge Soler off Hunter Harvey in the ninth turned it into a 5-4 loss in front of an announced crowd of 8,811 at loanDepot Park.
Pitching against a team for whom his father recorded 51 saves, Harvey entered the ninth trying to protect the Nats' two-run lead that they had built in the previous inning. He recorded a flyout and a strikeout on 10 pitches, needing just one more out for his second career save.
But a double by Garrett Cooper and an RBI single by Luis Arraez made it a one-run game, too close for comfort. Pinch-runner Jon Berti stole second base to put the tying run in scoring position, which was ultimately unnecessary thanks to Soler's 10th homer of the season.
“Just didn't make the pitch really,” Harvey said after the game. “He's a really good fastball hitter, a really good fastball-hitting team. And just gave him something he could get the barrel to.”
Sitting at 99 mph, almost touching 100, Harvey worked back from down 2-0 against the Marlins designated hitter to run the count full. But when trying to go in on the slugger, he grooved a 99 mph fastball to the outer part of the zone and Soler hit it 110 mph off the bat and 405 feet into left-center field for the Marlins victory.
“We were trying to go in. I didn't get in,” Harvey said. “I think two or three of the times that we tried to get in, I left it out over the plate, which is where he's strong. So he got his pitch and he hit it.”
The Marlins' three-run bottom of the ninth erased the Nats' three-run top of the eighth that had seemed to put them in position to win.
Facing a 2-1 deficit in the top of the eighth inning, Luis García, on his 23rd birthday, hit an infield single back to relief pitcher Huascar Brazoban. He then moved to second on a walk by Joey Meneses and then to third on a throwing error by catcher Nick Fortes, finally scoring on Jeimer Candelario's single up the middle, tying the game at 2-2.
After Alex Call drew a walk to load the bases against left-handed reliever Steven Okert, Dominic Smith delivered the go-ahead two-run single to right field to push the Nationals ahead late in the game.
“It feels good," Smith said. “I just want to stick to the approach, try to get something good to hit and see the ball, hit the outfield grass and score those runs. It definitely felt good.”
“Great at-bats, great at-bats," manager Davey Martinez said. "All of them had really good at-bats. They didn't try to do too much. They tried to stay in the middle of the field, they both put good wood on the baseball and got big hits for us. Clutch.”
Kyle Finnegan did get into some trouble by letting the first two runners reach in the bottom of the inning, but he got a strikeout and double play to get out of it.
“We used him before,” Martinez said of using Harvey in the ninth. “I mean, I liked the matchup with Finnegan in the inning before, so he was the right guy. It just didn't happen tonight.”
All of that action happened after Josiah Gray continued to show his improvement to start this season, which has been one of the best developments for the Nationals in 2023.
After a rocky first start in which he gave up five runs and three home runs (including one to each of the first two batters he faced) in five innings against the Braves, he has been one of the most consistent starting pitchers in baseball.
Over his last seven starts, he has pitched to a 2.21 ERA to rank seventh in the National League and 11th in the majors. He had four quality starts over that stretch and only gave up three earned runs once.
One of the biggest areas of improvement for Gray has been the longball. He led the majors with 38 homers allowed in 2022. He has only allowed two since giving up three in that first start.
Aside from home runs, another one of his biggest demons from last year was the Marlins. He made six starts against the Fish, going 0-3 with a 5.67 ERA and a 1.560 WHIP. He pitched much better in his first 2023 start against Miami, with only an early error costing him.
Martinez discussed the need for Gray to throw strikes ahead of tonight’s series opener against the Marlins. He did just that, throwing all 10 pitches in the first inning for strikes while only allowing a double to Arraez.
But he struggled to repeat that success in the strike zone in the second.
With one out, Gray gave up back-to-back singles and a walk to load the bases. He got the double play ball to the right side to Joey Wendle, with Dominic Smith scooping and throwing to CJ Abrams at second base. But Gray and Abrams couldn’t complete the second out, allowing a second run to score on an error charged to Gray for dropping the ball.
The call could have gone either way since Abrams’ throw was well wide and forced Gray to jump off the bag and into the direction of the runner. But the official scorekeeper ended up charging the pitcher with the error for catching the ball and then dropping it, allowing a second unearned run to score.
Gray would then retire 11 of the next 14 batters he faced. At 83 pitches, he returned to the mound in the seventh to face the bottom of the Marlins order.
A single, a strikeout, a double, a strikeout and an intentional walk of Arraez loaded the bases for Soler. Gray won the eight-pitch at-bat by inducing a ground ball to Abrams, who made the easy out at first.
The young right-hander finished seven innings with seven hits, two runs (one earned), three walks (one intentional) and five strikeouts on 104 pitches, 70 strikes. His ERA is now down to 2.73.
“I definitely had to grind through it,” Gray said. "I know I didn't have my best stuff tonight. I just wanted to work with the defense a little bit more tonight. So getting some ground balls, getting some early contacts allowed me to get through seven innings. But I didn't have my best stuff tonight, so being able to get through seven is a positive night.”
Yet another quality start, with only his own error proving costly.
“He's throwing the ball really well,” Martinez said. "He's got an unbelievable game plan and routine. And he's done really well. He wants the ball, he wants to pitch deep into games and you can see that once again tonight. We let him go out there, we let him get out of some jams. He was good. I think he's learned in these high-leverage situations to control the heartbeat and get through it. Like I said, today was a big moment for him. He got through it again. With the big hitter up there, got him to hit a ground ball to shortstop, got out of a big inning and kept us in the game.”
It did almost seem like once again, Gray was not going to receive much run support from the Nats. The offense had scored a combined one run over Gray’s first four starts of the season. Then they scored five or more in three of his last four outings coming into tonight.
The only run on the board for the visitors came off Lane Thomas’ leadoff home run in the sixth inning. Thomas hit a second-pitch 95 mph fastball from former Nationals farmhand Jesús Luzardo just over the right field fence for his team-leading fifth homer of the season.
Other than that, Luzardo held his former team in check for most of the night. He struck out seven (six swinging) over his six innings, giving up five hits and one walk.
Before the rally in the eighth inning, the Nats were 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and had left eight men on base.
Although the eventual rally was impressive, the bullpen's collapse spoiled what could have been a nice win for the good guys.
“I think as a ballplayer you want to be critical and figure out ways to help the ballclub win,” Smith said. “And that's really what drives us crazy at night. But it's just fun to go out there and compete and then have moments to win like that. And that's all you can ask for.”
“I mean, these are the nights that suck," Harvey said. "But it's just another day. I'll come back tomorrow and do it again.”