NEW YORK – The Nationals arrived at Yankee Stadium this afternoon with a newly re-signed manager, a bunch of emerging young stars and one of the best records in the majors over the last month and a half.
Then they showed a crowd of 38,105 why they don’t believe any of this is a fluke, riding the contributions of some of those emerging young stars (and one returning former top prospect) to a 2-1 victory that sent the reeling Yankees deeper into a hole they appear unlikely to emerge from.
Carter Kieboom homered on his first major league swing in nearly two years, Josiah Gray pitched around five walks to allow only one hit over six innings and CJ Abrams provided the winning blast with an eighth-inning homer off the right field foul pole.
And just like that, the Nationals kept flying high, unfazed by the supposed mystique and aura of The House That’s Supposed to Look like the House Ruth Built. They’ve won eight of their last 10, 24 of their last 38. And they’re doing it thanks in large part to key building blocks who are coming into their own at the same time.
"I think we can compete with anybody," Gray said. "We've shown that over the last month and a half, two months. ... We've been playing like a team since recent memory, and it's really fun to come to the ballpark every day knowing we have a chance to win, knowing we have a chance to upset the standings and kind of make a name for ourselves."
Abrams continued his breakthrough summer with another big blast. His solo homer off a first-pitch changeup from reliever Tommy Kahnle in the top of the eighth broke a 1-1 deadlock and was his 13th homer of the season. Five of those have either tied the game or given the Nats the lead.
"I'm not trying to hit home runs," he insisted. "They just happen at the right time, I guess. I just look for my pitch and react."
Abrams’ teammates made this one hold up. Mason Thompson, Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan each tossed a scoreless inning of relief, Harvey striking out both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the eighth and Finnegan earning his 22nd save with another zero in the ninth that sent the Yankees to their first nine-game losing streak since 1982.
"It's been awesome," said manager Davey Martinez, who the previous day was rewarded with a two-year contract extension. "They're playing hard for 27 outs. For me, that's all I can ask out of them."
The Nationals were in this position because they got a highly effective start from Gray, even if his path to get there was more than a bit bumpy.
This wasn’t the first time Gray pitched in his hometown, having taken the mound at Citi Field on three previous occasions. But it was the first time he pitched at Yankee Stadium, and so there were understandably some extra nerves tonight for the New Rochelle, N.Y., native.
He showed none of that during a 1-2-3 bottom of the first that included a strikeout of Aaron Judge. But then Gray’s command began to elude him, and the result was a steady stream of baserunners and jams.
During one 16-batter stretch from the second through fifth innings, Gray walked five batters and plunked another. Yet the only run he allowed came via the only hit he allowed: Ben Rortvedt’s solo homer to lead off the third.
Gray kept throwing more balls than strikes (51 to 50) but kept getting outs when he absolutely needed them. Never more so than in the fifth, when he followed up back-to-back walks with another strikeout of Judge and a grounder to short off Gleyber Torres’ bat.
And when he walked off the mound at the end of the sixth, the only number on an unusual stat line that truly mattered was the one run he allowed.
"I battled command, obviously, today. And my stuff wasn't great," Gray said. "But I was able to get out of jams. I've got to get back to the drawing board, continue to pound the strike zone. But to be able to get out of jams is part of pitching. I've had better outings where I walked one guy or no guys. ... but I was always a pitch away, and today I was able to execute that pitch to get us back in the dugout."
That was not good enough to put Gray in line for the win, though, because his teammates managed only one run themselves off Yankees starter Carlos Rodon. A run that carried special meaning for the guy who produced it.
Kieboom last played in a major league game on Oct. 3, 2021, the same day Ryan Zimmerman played in his last major league game. He last homered in a major league game Aug. 31, 2021, taking Phillies lefty Matt Moore deep to left-center.
Since then, Kieboom missed an entire season following Tommy John surgery, then saw the final stages of his rehab from that major procedure disrupted by an oblique strain. Now, seven years after the Nationals made him their first-round draft pick, four years after he made his big league debut with two homers in his first three games, Kieboom is back for one final shot. And he made the most of it in his first at-bat tonight.
Taking a mighty hack at Rodon’s 1-0 fastball, Kieboom launched a leadoff homer to left in the top of the third, then circled the bases with a wide smile on his face and an emphatic fist pump as he rounded second.
"Baseball's crazy," the 25-year-old said. "We've all seen some crazy stuff. And after everything, being two years removed, to have that be my first hit back, first swing, it's special. It meant a lot to me. You really can't make this stuff up."
That would prove to represent the Nats’ entire offensive output against Rodon, though. Not because they couldn’t get any hits off the lefty, but because they couldn’t help themselves from trying to make too much out of those hits.
In one of the most unfathomable sequences in club history, three Nationals players were thrown out trying to stretch singles into doubles. In a span of five batters. Keibert Ruiz did it first. Then Ildemaro Vargas. Then Alex Call.
"I think some of these guys, Lou Brock crawled in or something," Martinez quipped. "It was like: What in the world is going on here? But look, they're playing aggressive, and that's what I love about these guys. They're really trying to play aggressive. Other than the three little instances today, they've been running the bases well."
Because of tonight's blunders, this remained a 1-1 game late, a game there for the taking if either team was just willing to take it.
Then Abrams emphatically took it, and the Nats took down another victim in this most enjoyable summer.
"Oh man, we've got a lot in store," the young shortstop said. "We're a young team, we're coming together. And we've got Davey for another two years, right? We're going to make things happen."