PHILADELPHIA — Take away Kyle Schwarber, and Wednesday brought this truth about the Washington Nationals’ rebuild: A key will be Josiah Gray doing what he did against the Philadelphia Phillies — bending them to his will, matching the opponents’ dominant starter — and then doing it over and over again in the coming years.
Is he a future front-line starter? Stay tuned. But outside of three matchups with Schwarber, including two more homers for the left-handed slugger, Gray was the pitcher the Nationals hoped for at last summer’s deadline. He punched out five of the first eight batters on his way to a career-high 11 strikeouts, mixing his four-seamer, slider and curve. And by sticking with the Phillies’ Aaron Nola for six innings, Gray gave the offense a chance in the seventh, when the Nationals rallied for a 3-2 win at Citizens Bank Park.
Yadiel Hernandez and Keibert Ruiz poked back-to-back singles off Nola. Luis García followed with a two-run double, flipping the score for good. To preserve the slim lead, Carl Edwards Jr., Kyle Finnegan and Tanner Rainey followed Gray out of the bullpen. So in a twist, Schwarber crushed Washington (30-54), but his team couldn’t. The Nationals snapped a six-game skid and improved to 7-29 against the National League East.
“For us in the clubhouse specifically, it’s a lot of fun to see the younger guys contribute like that,” Gray said. “And it lets you know that brighter days are obviously ahead.”
A night after tagging Paolo Espino for a pair of homers, Schwarber took Gray deep in the fourth and sixth, giving him an NL-best 27 on the season and six against his former team. He even added a leadoff single in the first, flicking Gray’s well-placed curve to left. Homers are a consequence of Gray’s pitching style, and Schwarber is especially primed to exploit that. But Gray thrived, in the end, because he handled everyone else in the Phillies’ lineup, returning to the way he dominated throughout June.
The Phillies’ second through ninth hitters finished the night 1 for 26 with a single and a walk. Gray struck out Nick Castellanos twice (on sliders), Darick Hall three times (on three fastballs) and J.T. Realmuto three times (on a slider, curve and slider). He threw 100 pitches, reaching the mark for the fifth time in his career. The Phillies (43-39) swung at 55 of them and whiffed 22 times.
“Tried to split the zone and get into the top half,” Gray said of excelling with his heater. “... I had really good results with the fastball today along with the other pitches. Obviously encouraging for the next outing.”
Nola faced an order with Juan Soto, who returned after tweaking his calf, but without Nelson Cruz, who missed a second straight game with a stomach virus. Soto reached three times, including when he singled and scored on Yadiel Hernandez’s double to right-center in the fourth. Hernandez added a single and another double to his line. But more than anything, Wednesday was about who might join Soto in the Nationals’ next winning core, no matter how far off contention feels.
Gray’s outing spoke for itself. García, a 22-year-old shortstop, provided the go-ahead hit and singled in the fifth. Ruiz, a 23-year-old catcher, threw out a runner in the first and barrel-rolled into home for the winning run in the seventh. And a short drive away in Allentown, Pa., Cade Cavalli, the club’s top pitching prospect, threw seven scoreless innings for Class AAA Rochester. Cavalli, 23, brought a perfect game into the sixth against Lehigh Valley, yielded two hits, struck out seven and threw just 74 pitches. That the IronPigs are Philadelphia’s top affiliate lent some nice symmetry.
“We hope to be together for a long time,” García said of himself, Gray and Ruiz.
That’s a common feeling in the organization.
What happened in Schwarber’s fourth at-bat? Leading off the eighth against Finnegan, Schwarber struck out swinging on a fastball well above the strike zone. Schwarber disagreed with the call from third base umpire Roberto Ortiz, who said he didn’t check his swing. The home crowd booed. Either way, Finnegan quieted Schwarber’s bat, walked Rhys Hoskins, then escaped the inning with a double play.
Who will pitch Thursday’s series finale? That would be rookie right-hander Joan Adon. The 23-year-old made 12 starts before he was optioned to Rochester with a 6.95 ERA. Less than two weeks later, his 13th appearance was a spot start against the Phillies on June 17. But Thursday is different because Adon has another chance to stick in the rotation. He is back from Rochester after Tetreault went to the 15-day injured list with a stress fracture of his right scapula. Adon should be fresh, too, because he spent the past two weeks resting his arm after shouldering a heavy load in April and May.