It’s no secret: The Nationals pitching staff is the team’s biggest liability at this point in the season. It seems like no lead is safe and every deficit could continue to grow.
That was certainly the case during tonight’s 10-7 loss to the Pirates, the Nats’ third straight defeat, second in Pittsburgh. Optimists would say entering the bottom of the fifth inning with a 5-2 lead would have been a good path toward victory. Realists would say that a three-run lead wouldn’t be enough.
The latter would be right.
Josiah Gray, making his eighth start with the Nationals, was three outs away from being in line for the first major league win of his career. But the walks and home runs caught up to him as he once again struggled with command. A walk to Yoshi Tsutsugo set up Bryan Reynolds’ two-run home run to make it a one-run game in the fifth. Then two batters later, Ben Gamel hit another homer off Gray - the 17th allowed by the right-hander this season, 13th as a National - to tie the game at 5-5.
“Yeah, just thinking too much out there on the mound,” Gray said of his outing in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “I think a lot of the walks, those at-bats started 1-0, 2-0, 2-1 sometimes. So just getting behind early, having to play catch-up in those at-bats. Obviously, you have to be able to finer when you’re behind in counts, and I got way too behind today. I think I threw 55 percent strikes, something like that. Incredibly bad. So just working behind and kind of just trying to play catch up and today definitely was that day.”
From that point on, it was a matter of who could make fewer mistakes on the mound. The answer: the Pirates.
Out of the Nats bullpen, Alberto Baldonado gave up two runs without giving up a hit by allowing two walks and only recording one out on 13 pitches. Andres Machado gave up two unearned runs (thanks to a fielding error by Luis García) on a hit, two walks and two strikeouts while recording two outs. And Sam Clay gave up a run on two hits in a 16-pitch seventh inning.
As a staff, Nationals pitchers allowed 10 runs (eight earned) on seven hits and 10 walks. The latter number was particularly striking, especially considering that Gray alone gave out six bases on balls.
“It’s the same issue. I mean, a few times, he was able to stay closed off and then throw strikes, pound the strike zone,” manager Davey Martinez said of Gray’s walks. “A lot of times he just flew open, so the arm side misses, the breaking ball misses. So we got to get him consistent with his mechanics. When he does that, he’s got to be good. As you can see, when he throws strikes, you don’t give them very much. The home runs he gave up were behind the count. But other than that, he gave up three hits. But the walks is what is gonna get you. It’s gonna get you every time.”
The Nationals kept trying to battle back, sticking with the offensive mindset that they’re never out of it. Yadiel Hernandez drove in Juan Soto in the seventh and Ryan Zimmerman delivered a pinch-hit home run leading off the eighth. But that wasn’t enough to recover from the damage done by the pitching flaws.
“I’ll take my chances scoring seven runs every day,” said Martinez. “But they’ve been putting on runs every day. Typically, when we score five or more runs, we’re usually pretty good. We need to get back to that.”
The night did get off to a good start for the Nationals as the team’s past, present and future were all on display. Wil Crowe, traded last December to the Pirates as a part of the deal to bring Josh Bell to the Nationals, represented the past as the opposing starting pitcher. Gray, acquired at this season’s trade deadline as a part of the deal that sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers, made his eighth start as a member of this rotation to represent the present. Keibert Ruiz, the other major piece of that Dodgers trade, started behind the plate and batted seventh. And as the organization’s top prospects, Gray and Ruiz also represented the future.
Gray and Ruiz got the best of Crowe early on, though the Pirates pitcher would get bailed out by his teammates in the fifth.
Gray got through the first four innings by only allowing two runs. After a throwing error by Ruiz to second base and two walks loaded the bases in the third, Colin Moran hit an RBI single to right field. But Soto’s throw home seemed to keep it at one run for the moment. After a Pirates challenge, the call was overturned, concluding that Ruiz blocked the plate from Yoshi Tsutsugo.
So the run counted and the Bucs took a 2-0 lead.
But Ruiz would make up for it in the next frame. After the Nats had only one hit (Bell’s home run last night) in the 10 innings between the second inning Friday night and the third inning tonight, they rattled off three in a row to load the bases in the fourth. Up stepped Ruiz, who smacked a bases-clearing double to deep right field for the biggest hit of his Nationals career and a 3-2 lead.
Unfortunately, the night for both young players came to unceremonious endings.
Gray finished five innings with three hits (two homers), five runs, six walks and four strikeouts on 100 pitches, 54 for strikes.
And as for Ruiz, he was hit with a 94 mph fastball in the right side of his head by Kyle Keller in the top of the sixth. The catcher seemed to try to shake it off but was replaced by pinch-runner Riley Adams.
The pitching woes continue to haunt the Nationals and the odds are they will continue to do so for the remainder of the season. A stark contrast to what this team has historically been under general manager Mike Rizzo, who prides himself on finding and developing strong hurlers.
The biggest concern now, however, is the status of Ruiz and if the rest of his season is in jeopardy.
“Yeah, X-rays were negative,” Martinez said. “He’s got a slight headache, which I’m glad that’s all he has. But he said he feels fine, so we’ll see how he feels tomorrow.”