Ask an inexperienced bullpen that has been on fumes for weeks to protect a one-run lead at Coors Field in late September and you’re asking for trouble by default.
Not that Davey Martinez had any choice tonight. Despite five scoreless innings from Josiah Gray to begin the Nationals’ series opener in Colorado, the rookie starter faded quickly in the sixth and got the hook with his team clinging to a 4-3 lead.
So it was up to a beleaguered bullpen to hold that lead, with no margin for error, in the toughest ballpark in the world to try to achieve such a thing. And when that group delivered, closing out what wound up a 5-4 victory after the two teams traded runs in the ninth, it represented one of its few shining moments of the last three months.
“When you throw strikes, limit the walks, good things happen,” Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “That’s something we talk about with these guys. It was a good night for them.”
The score was 4-3 when Gray was pulled with one out in the bottom of the sixth. And given the setting, the two lineups and the respective bullpens, the odds of the score remaining that way the rest of the night felt infinitesimal.
The score ultimately did change, first as a result of Alcides Escobar’s bases-loaded single in the top of the ninth. That left Rainey to face the heart of the Rockies lineup with a two-run lead, and though the recently recalled reliever finally allowed his first baserunners (and run) since returning from Triple-A Rochester, he did close it out and strand the tying run at second base.
“Step off, take a deep breath, try to slow everything down,” Rainey said of his approach when dealing with his first jam in a while. “Obviously, you don’t want to give up any runs there, but ... with the tying run on second, you just try to slow everything down and focus on the hitter, knowing that one more out and the game’s over.”
The tense ninth came after Thompson posted a zero in the seventh and Finnegan posted a zero in the eighth despite throwing only three fastballs among his 20 total pitches, an out-of-character choice for the right-hander but one that came at the encouragement of the coaching staff.
“That’s by design,” Martinez said. “We talked to him a lot about not being heavy, heavy fastball. Honestly, we didn’t want him to throw that many off-speed pitches, but we wanted him to be conscious of that he does have a good split, he does have a good slider. He needs to use it more. And it was effective tonight.”
Whether this was his final start of 2021, or whether he gets one more call this weekend against the Red Sox, the assignment was a particularly tough one for Gray. Coors Field has been a pitcher’s nightmare since before the 23-year-old was born, and for a guy who relies so much on his breaking balls to put hitters away, the thin air does no favors.
Gray, though, looked quite comfortable pitching in Colorado. His fastball continued to have life on it, and he was able to turn to his slider more than his curveball to record outs. Six of his 10 swings-and-misses came on sliders, including three of his four strikeouts.
The rookie’s night got off to a potentially terrifying start when he lost control of a fastball and drilled Rockies No. 2 hitter Brendan Rodgers in the helmet. Rodgers would leave the game, though the club later announced he cleared concussion tests.
Still, that kind of incident can faze any pitcher, let alone one making his 12th career start, so all eyes were on Gray to see how he handled it. He quickly retired the next two batters he faced, capped with a strikeout of Trevor Story, then he completed the second inning on a scant five pitches.
“Obviously, I didn’t intend for that to happen,” Gray said. “I hope he’s all right. I just had to buckle down and make my pitches from then on out. Just not be timid with the fastball, or be timid to go inside to batters and just bear down and know that I’ve got to pitch my game as well.”
Things were going swimmingly for Gray through the fifth, which ended with a zero in Colorado’s run column, but then things turned south in a hurry. After attempting to bunt for a hit with two outs in the top of the sixth, he took the mound for the bottom of the inning and immediately got into trouble, with a leadoff single followed by consecutive walks on nine total pitches.
Gray would get C.J. Cron to loft a fly ball to shallow left field for one out, but he wouldn’t retire Ryan McMahon after that. His 1-1 fastball at the letters was belted deep to right-center, not quite deep enough to account for the record-breaking 15th grand slam surrendered by the Nationals this season but deep enough to account for a three-run double that ended Gray’s strong night on a really sour note.
“If I think back on it, I definitely was a little more winded after that failed bunt attempt,” he said. “But that’s just part of the game. I have to be more conscious of what I’m doing at the plate there, in terms of what I want to do for the team and looking at the score, stuff like that. That was just a bad read on my part, and it probably affected me just a little bit in that bottom of the sixth.”
Gray did depart in line for the win, though, thanks to Voth’s escape act in relief and the Nationals’ fourth- and fifth-inning rallies off Rockies starter Germán Márquez.
They plated three runs in the fourth, thanks to an impressive eight-pitch walk drawn by rookie Keibert Ruiz with the bases loaded, then a two-run single by rookie Luis García. And then added another in the fifth when Juan Soto (pitched to with runners on the corners and nobody out) busted down the line to prevent the completion of a double play, earning his 93rd RBI on the fielder’s choice.
Who knew the Nats would need those four runs to hold up almost the entire night? Or that their pitching staff would ensure they did hold up in the thin, mountain air?