Gray impresses in debut, but bullpen blows it in ninth (updated)

There are going to be more nights like this at Nationals Park the rest of the season, nights that include legitimate reason for optimism and then legitimate reason for anguish. It’s up to everyone - the players, the coaches, the front office, the fans - to decide what to care most about.

On this unseasonably cool August Monday night, the optimists could look at Josiah Gray’s Nationals debut and be thrilled with the young right-hander’s five innings of one-run ball and long-term potential.

The sentimentalists could look at Ryan Zimmerman’s bases-loaded single in the seventh and be thrilled they got another chance to see the old man deliver in a key spot.

And the realists could look at the top of the ninth, when Davey Martinez had no choice but to try to close out a one-run game with Gabe Klobosits and Wander Suero and suffered the inevitable result that followed: a 7-5 loss.

With Kyle Finnegan (the de facto new closer after Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson were traded) unavailable after pitching six of the last eight days, Martinez tried to pull a rabbit out of his hat and get six outs from Klobosits, the rookie who retired the side in the eighth on four pitches. That didn’t work; Klobosits allowed back-to-back singles to open the ninth.

“I was hoping he could finish the ninth. He couldn’t do it,” Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “His velo dropped a little bit. We could tell he was trying to throw the ball up, but he was spiking the ball. I’ve got to make sure I take care of these guys.”

So Martinez tried Suero instead, and that move completely backfired when the right-hander instantly gave up the game-tying double to Jean Segura, then the two-run single to J.T. Realmuto that gave the Phillies the lead, then the RBI single to Alec Bohm that extended the lead, then the RBI groundout that extended it even more.

“We’ll see how Finnegan feels tomorrow,” Martinez said, “but like I’ve said before: These guys are going to get an opportunity to do some things they probably haven’t done before, and we’ve got to see what they can do.”

The Nationals would make things interesting in the bottom of the ninth when Carter Kieboom blasted a two-run homer to left. But that’s as close as they would get.

It was the Nationals’ fourth blown save in their last nine games, the first two coming before the mass roster sell-off, the last two coming since. And it made for an unenjoyable ending to a previously uplifting evening at the ballpark for the Nationals and the crowd of 16,393 that came to see the future and wasn’t disappointed by that, at least.

Josiah Gray throwing white sidebar.jpgGray didn’t take the mound to much fanfare. Some among the sparse Monday night crowd cheered when his name was introduced in the lineup, but on the hype scale for Nationals pitching debuts, this fell much closer to Jordan Zimmermann than Strasburg.

Which was just fine. This wasn’t Gray’s major league debut - he pitched twice for the Dodgers in recent weeks - and he didn’t need anyone to make a bigger deal out of this than it was. Besides, the kid showed plenty of poise from the get-go, retiring the side in the top of the first on 10 pitches, seven of them strikes.

“I felt pretty comfortable througout the whole outing, just from pitch one to my last pitch,” he said. “Nerves didn’t really get to me. Obviously, they’re still there a little bit. But I felt comfortable.”

That was perhaps the defining characteristic of Gray’s outing. He consistently got ahead of hitters, pounding the strike zone with his mid-90s fastball, then sprinkling in his curveball, slider and changeup off that. He struck out only two batters, but he walked only two and induced plenty of weak contact, including many popups and routine fly balls.

Gray got himself into one jam, putting two on with nobody out in the fourth. But he pitched his way out of that one with relative ease. And though he grooved a 3-2 fastball to Odúbel Herrera to open the fifth, the solo homer was hardly enough to spoil the outing as a whole.

“That’s the reason why we got him,” catcher Tres Barrera said. “I knew he was going to have a live arm, and he’s here for a reason. You trade for a guy like Max Scherzer, you’re going to get something really special in return. He looked great, man. He commanded all of his pitches. It was actually really fun to work with him.”

His pitch count was only 71, but Gray has yet to throw more than five innings in any start this season, majors or minors, so that was the finish line for him tonight. He received handshakes and high-fives in the dugout after getting Bryce Harper to ground out to end the fifth, and thus concluded a solid-if-unspectacular debut.

“He handled himself really well,” Martinez said. “He was really poised out there. And threw the ball well. He threw strikes, which was awesome. He threw a lot of first-pitch strikes. He fell behind a couple times and came right back and got back in the strike zone. I thought he was really good.”

It might’ve registered more enthusiasm if Gray’s teammates had supplied him any run support. Alas, they managed a grand total of one hit and one walk in five innings against Ranger Suárez (who is being converted into a starter) and Hector Neris (typically a late-inning arm).

Fortunately, Andrew Stevenson connected on a fastball from righty Enyel De Los Santos in the bottom of the sixth, sending it soaring off the back wall of the right field bullpen for the game-tying homer.

And though the Phillies would re-take the lead in the top of the seventh when Andres Machado inherited a jam from Sam Clay and uncorked a wild pitch to the backstop, the Nats escaped further damage thanks to a perfect strike to the plate from Yadiel Hernandez to nail Harper.

They would take the lead in the bottom of the inning, thanks to Zimmerman. But they would give it back - and then some - two innings later, a harsh conclusion to a game that began with far more reason for optimism.

“Obviously, a lot of guys that are getting a real chance to play, a chance to make a name for themselves in the big leagues,” Gray said. “No one’s out here trying to do too much. Everyone’s just trying to play their game and enjoy it as they can. I’m sure we’re going to sneak up on a lot of teams and win some ballgames. I’m glad to be a part of this team.”

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