At that point, Washington had a lead that disappeared, returned and slipped again in a 9-8 loss. The Nationals were officially eliminated from postseason contention and will miss the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 2011. Kyle Finnegan blew a save for the second straight game, wasting an eighth-inning comeback. The score flipped when Elías Díaz led off the ninth with a homer, crushing Finnegan’s inside sinker, and Rodgers followed with a go-ahead single.
“Honestly, I’m just going to take away all the positives. Today was so much better than the last three outings before this,” Gray said. “And obviously the first was a little rough with the two walks and then the double, but even then I struck out [Trevor] Story and got two flyouts on back-to-back pitches. That makes a difference in me getting to the sixth inning.”
Through five innings, the Nationals (60-87) had eight hits to the Rockies’ two, building a four-run cushion for Gray. He had a chance to bury Colorado, to squash even the thought of a comeback, yet couldn’t finish hitters in big spots. With two down in the fifth, he was ahead 0-2 on leadoff man Garrett Hampson and walked him. The next batter, Rodgers, was behind 0-2 and ripped a hanging slider out to left.
Gray, 23, struck out five, walked four, yielded just three hits and threw 94 pitches across 5⅓ innings. The inherited runner Gray left for Alberto Baldonado scored on a single, putting at least five earned runs on his line for the fourth consecutive appearance. It all kept Gray on a search for sustained rhythm and command.
And a few hours before Gray took the mound, the Nationals held a question-and-answer session for season ticket holders. The crowd sat right behind the home dugout, listening to hitting coach Kevin Long, outfielders Lane Thomas and Gerardo Parra, and rookie catcher Riley Adams. General Manager Mike Rizzo stopped by, too.
But unlike Long, Thomas, Parra and Adams, Rizzo didn’t take questions (one person, for example, pressed Long on why the team has grounded into so many double plays this season). Rizzo chose a brief message instead.
“Believe me, nobody wants to win more than Mike Rizzo does,” the GM told a few sections of supporters, referring to himself in the third person. “So we’re going to do everything we can to put this thing around quickly and get us back in the championship class. And the core players that you’re seeing right now are going to be the core of the next championship club with the Washington Nationals.
“So thank you for your patience, support, and let's enjoy the last couple of games, watching these good young players play extremely hard, trying to make a name for themselves.”
Soon, they put that vision into action, taxing Rockies starter Germán Márquez for six runs in four innings. Thomas, 26, skied a three-run homer in the fourth before notching an infield single and walk. Keibert Ruiz, the club’s 23-year-old catcher, punched a two-out, RBI double in the first and singled twice. In five plate appearances, Juan Soto, still only 22, reached with a single, two walks and an intentional walk (though he was caught between third and home to stifle an opportunity in the seventh).
In the eighth, though, the Nationals scored twice to peel Gray off the hook. The progress was just unwound by Finnegan, who’s in a very rough patch as Washington’s de facto closer. Washington pushed again in the ninth, thanks to singles from Ruiz and Ryan Zimmerman, but fell one hit short.
“I want to win every game. I’m not a big of losing, believe me," Manager Dave Martinez said. “But we’re young, I want to stay positive, we’re going to stick to the process, and these guys are all going to get an opportunity to be out there. We need to see what we have for the upcoming years.”
With his past four starts, Gray has shaded his early success here with statistical clunkers: six earned runs in four innings against the Philadelphia Phillies; six earned runs in three against the New York Mets; five earned runs in five innings against the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, an outing that included six walks; then five in 5⅓ on Friday. The matchup with Colorado unfolded in small narratives.
The first inning looked like a continuation of recent struggles. The second, third and fourth — then a bulk of the fifth — seemed like a break in the right direction, closer to his initial starts with Washington. Then the walk to Hampson was a step back, especially because he was ahead 0-2 before losing the at-bat. Then Rodgers’s blast did him in.
Gray saw three more batters, inducing a groundout, allowing a double to Story and getting Cron to pop up to left. When Gray retreated to the dugout, his season ERA was 6.24. Baldonado entered, lost the Nationals’ advantage on a two-run shot for Sam Hilliard and exited to light boos. If not much else — or maybe at the very least — there was room for growth, plenty of it, up and down the pitching staff.