Takeaways from the 6th-9th innings last night in a gut-punch loss

The Washington Nationals broke up Jesus Luzardo‘s shutout in the sixth inning with a Lane Thomas home run. The game went into the bottom of the 7th innings with a Nats’ 2-1 deficit. Up until the 6th inning, Josiah Gray had been relying on contact outs as he only had one strikeout to that point. Gray had a dominant 6th inning and struck-out two more batters, and he did all he could…it seemed and then he came out for the 7th inning after he seemingly emptied his tank in that 6th inning. BABIP and some great fielding was on his side as only seven batters reached base, two via walks to that point. In his final inning, things would unravel a little and the stress point went on high.

Rewind to the pre-game presser when manager Dave Martinez was talking about Jake Irvin getting his next start amidst talk that Chad Kuhl could be back soon, and the Nats’ manager discussed that a six-man rotation could be employed just to save his young arms with their innings limits. Certainly Gray is one of those pitchers with an innings limit. He pitched 148 2/3 last year. But there he was, Gray was back on the mound for the 7th inning and redlining above 100-pitches and in big trouble with runners on third and second and one out. Credit to Gray for putting a different shape on his breaking pitch and striking out Garrett Cooper on a spiked breaking pitch in the dirt. It was filthy. Then he got a grounder up the middle by Jorge Soler that shortstop CJ Abrams ranged far to his glove-side to pick the ball and made it look easy for the third out. Gray finished at 104 pitches and one earned run — the second run scored off of a bizarre fielding error as he was trying to take a potential double play ball that resulted in Gray covering first and dropping the throw after the runner clipped him. The official scorer assessed an error on Gray resulting in that unearned run.

It was a heck of a performance on a night that for five innings, Gray, seemingly didn’t have his slider working until he changed it’s shape in his final two innings. Incredible improvisation by a craftsman. It felt like a repeat of Monday with Patrick Corbin. Both pitchers persevered, and maybe past the point of exhaustion. Adding this amount of stress on arms can take its toll down the road. How wonderful that in consecutive games, Nats pitching had great box score results, but underlying, counting on contact to win games is usually a losing battle as the Nats found out in last night’s game.

“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 groundballs, getting some early contacts allowed me to get through 7.0 innings.

But I didn’t have my best stuff tonight so being able to get through seven is a positive night.”

When Gray faced six batters in that 7th inning, it assured that the Marlins were going to get their top of the lineup hitters up again in this game. You will see that was the undoing of Hunter Harvey in the 9th inning with a gut-punch of a blown-save loss.

But first, let’s give credit to the Nats in the top of the 8th inning when they scored three runs to take the lead and put a blown-save on the Marlins bullpen. The little things became huge as Luis Garcia legged out an infield hit on a high chopper followed by a hard-fought walk by Joey Meneses followed by the game tying Jeimer Candelario groundball single. Alex Call then spit on close pitches and worked a walk to load the bases. It was Dom Smith who delivered what should have been the knock-out blow with a groundball single that found daylight and gave the Nats a 4-2 lead. BABIP worked for the Nats in that inning for sure, plus those two walks were key.

In the bottom of the 8th inning it was Kyle Finnegan taking on a set-up man role, and he was immediately in trouble with consecutive singles to start off his night. But he then got the much-needed strikeout followed by a tailor-made double play to get the game into the 9th inning. The Nats went down quickly in their half of the 9th and that led to what looked like Harvey’s chance to show he should be the closer.

Well, it started of great with two quick outs by Harvey. But there was Garrett Cooper up again, and a hard luck 0-4 on the night. He ripped a 2-out double in a 2-strike count. The reigning batting champ, Luis Arraez, ripped an RBI single in a 2-strike count bringing Soler, the winning run, into the batter’s box. Jon Berti was inserted as the pinch-runner and immediately stole second base putting the tying run in scoring position. The count on Soler went to 2-1, and Harvey dotted a 100 mph (99.7) 4-seamer for what was a clear strike about three inches from the center of the plate. Homeplate ump Mark Carlson called it ball three which pushed the count to 3-1 instead of 2-2.

The Soler and Harvey battle would continue and in a 3-1 count, Soler spit on a splitter that was on the inside edge and called a strike. If he swings at it, who knows, and with the advantage of the 3-1 count, Soler did not have to swing. But then Soler’s eyes got big as a 4-seamer was near the middle of the zone and Soler did not miss it for the walk-off winner. The pitch was supposed to be inside.

“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.”

A gut-punch to the Nats in a game that Harvey could not get that final strikeout in a 2-strike count. There are a lot of takeaways here, and a lot to debate. Soler was 0-4 on the night before that home run. It was probably the right decision to go after him, and he did not miss the decisive pitch.

“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.”

Uh, please Harvey, don’t ever do it again. Learn from this outing, and do better. Make adjustments.

Maybe the problem was the 7th inning that would give the top of Marlins’ decimated lineup another shot. You give batters enough chances, and the law of averages say they might get it done, and in Arraez’s case, he is a star, and giving him more chances was just a mistake.

But the learning that Harvey must do was the at-bat with Cooper. He needs to go back to the bases empty 0-2 count that he had Cooper in with 2 outs. He left his splitter over the plate and Cooper crushed it for a double with an exit velo of 105.2 mph and the ball traveled 400 feet. The Marlins could say, it all started with a Cooper double. The Nats wanted to say it all started with a Garcia infield single.

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