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Josiah Gray impresses in Nationals debut, but bullpen falters in loss to Phillies

Josiah Gray allowed one run in five innings in his Nationals debut, a 7-5 loss to the Phillies on Monday. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Ball met bat and it was quiet in Nationals Park, as if, at once, a crowd of more than 16,000 swallowed its breath. The flight of this specific hit — in the top of the first inning, on a cool Monday night in August, in a season the Nationals punted away at the trade deadline — would decide nothing aside from a single at-bat. But the difference between a home run and a warning-track flyout was enormous, considering the pitcher on the mound and batter at the plate.

The matchup was right-hander Josiah Gray vs. outfielder Bryce Harper. In the abstract, though, it was a piece of the Nationals’ past facing a hope for their future. When Harper arrived in 2012 as a brash 19-year-old, Washington began its decade of chasing championships. When he left after the 2018 season, the Nationals added to a talented core and won the World Series. And when they stepped back last week, trading eight players at the deadline, Max Scherzer and Trea Turner among them, Gray was a highlight of the 12-prospect return.

So his team debut Monday, in a 7-5 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, mattered more than most starts for most other pitchers. It mattered because, with a rebuild in its infancy, much optimism rides on whether Gray, 23, realizes his potential. It mattered that, on his 11th pitch, Harper’s long fly to left found Yadiel Hernandez’s glove.

“I’ll get a good shot, a good role this year, and prove myself in the big leagues just like everyone here,” said Gray, who threw 71 pitches over five innings, yielding four hits, striking out two and walking two. “Everyone’s going to play hard every day. We got a really good ballclub. I’m really excited for now, and I’m really excited for the future.”

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Before Monday, Nationals players and coaches knew little aside from his biographical notes: a native of New Rochelle, N.Y.; a converted shortstop at Division II Le Moyne College; a second-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds before he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2018.

He and Nationals left-hander Patrick Corbin have mutual friends in Syracuse, where Corbin grew up and Le Moyne is located. Mason Thompson, a reliever acquired at the deadline, who also debuted for the Nationals on Monday with a scoreless sixth inning, was on teams that faced Gray in the minors. Otherwise, they were all acquainted on the fly, with fill-in pitching coach Sam Narron doing the most homework.

“The biggest thing was asking him: ‘What do you like to do? Who are you out there?’ ” said Narron, who is with the Nationals because pitching coach Jim Hickey is one of nine staff members sidelined after testing positive for the coronavirus. Typically, Narron has the same job with Washington’s Class AA affiliate in Harrisburg.

“There’s a lot going on for him with a new team, new city, new everything,” he continued. “So my plan is to keep it simple and let him dictate everything. But even seeing him play catch, the way he is around the clubhouse, the kid has a chance to do something very special in D.C.”

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Gray only debuted for the Dodgers on July 20, 10 days before he was traded to Washington along with catcher Keibert Ruiz, right-hander Gerardo Carrillo and outfielder Donovan Casey in a package for Scherzer and Turner. Heading into the week, his major league stat line was limited to two appearances, eight innings, six earned runs and 13 strikeouts. His season high for pitches is still 79.

But here was a glimpse of what Gray could grow into. He retired the first six batters he faced, mostly mixing a low-to-mid-90s fastball with a curve and slider. He stranded two on in the third and fourth. Thirty of his first 40 pitches were strikes. Nine of his 15 outs came in the air. He found trouble in the fifth, when Odúbel Herrera smacked a full-count fastball to the left field seats. But even after issuing a two-out, four-pitch walk to Jean Segura, Gray rebounded to get Harper on a slow grounder.

As Gray walked off the field, he received his fifth and final ovation from the crowd behind the dugout. Manager Dave Martinez was waiting for him and catcher Tres Barrera. Martinez put his arms around the pair, pulling their heads in for a close talk, then shook Gray’s hand, ending his night. Narron did the same, and Gray smiled.

“That’s the reason why we got him,” Barrera said. “I knew he was going to have a live arm, and he’s here for a reason. You trade a guy like Max Scherzer, you’re going to get something really special in return.”

Gray exited with the Nationals trailing 1-0 because they couldn’t solve closer Ranger Suárez (who started) and setup man Héctor Neris (who followed Suarez’s spotless three innings). The offense did make a push, tying it on Andrew Stevenson’s pinch-hit homer in the sixth, then going ahead on Ryan Zimmerman’s pinch-hit, two-run single in the seventh. But Gabe Klobosits, a recent call-up, was unable to complete a six-out save after logging a four-pitch eighth.

He allowed back-to-back singles to start the ninth. Then Wander Suero replaced him and was crushed by a score-knotting double by Segura, a two-run single by J.T. Realmuto and an RBI single for Alec Bohm. In the bottom half, Carter Kieboom’s two-run shot halved the deficit.

It was an imperfect ending to Gray’s encouraging debut. These Nationals may have to get familiar with that.