The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nationals fall to Marlins, but Josiah Gray finds a pitch to believe in

Nationals pitching coach Jim Hickey (48) talks to Josiah Gray during the sixth inning of Friday night's loss to the Marlins. (Marta Lavandier/AP)

MIAMI — When it comes to his feelings, Josiah Gray doesn’t keep many secrets on the mound. After he plunked Bryan De La Cruz in the sixth inning Friday, throwing a misplaced fastball that cost a run, Gray’s body convulsed, and he yelled at himself. And once he escaped the inning, after the Miami Marlins scored three times, Gray covered his mouth with his glove and screamed again.

There were intriguing elements of Gray’s six-inning start. He threw his new sinker for 23 of his 92 pitches, notably more than his 14 four-seam fastballs. After the fourth inning, his only four-seamer was the one that hit De La Cruz in the game-defining rally. From the second to the fifth, Gray was sharp and efficient, leaning on his slider, curve and sinker, in that order, to hold down the struggling Marlins.

But with bursts of offense in the first and sixth, the Marlins beat the Washington Nationals, 5-2, at LoanDepot Park. Miami started the sixth with back-to-back singles off Gray’s sinker, a pitch he added midsummer and slowly has been gaining trust in. Then Gray walked JJ Bleday, De La Cruz wore the 1-2 fastball, and Charles Leblanc followed with an RBI single. The next batter, Miguel Rojas, grounded into a double play while another run crossed home.

“Two things he did: He threw the sinkers, and he threw change-ups today, which is awesome,” Manager Dave Martinez said, noting the change-up even though Gray used it twice in the whole outing. “If he can do those two things and hitters can get off his fastball and his slider, it’s going to help him in the long run.”

Stephen Strasburg gave his body to baseball. Now his future is a mystery.

Gray, 24, entered having yielded the most homers (37) and walks (63) in the National League. On Friday, though, he didn’t walk a batter until the sixth and kept Miami in the yard. It was the first time in 13 starts an opponent didn’t take him deep, a stretch going back to June 25. Instead, the Marlins jumped ahead by pounding two four-seam fastballs for a pair of doubles in the first. That quickly erased Lane Thomas’s leadoff homer off Marlins starter Braxton Garrett.

By inning, Gray threw four four-seamers in the first, four in the second, two in the third and three in the fourth, then all but totally shelved it. If he can refine the sinker, its horizontal movement could help him better avoid hard contact moving forward. The average velocity for the pitch was just more than a mile per hour slower than his four-seamer (93.4 to 94.6). Testing it this much — something Gray can do at this stage of a lost season — is a promising development, even if it was couched inside a loss.

“It’s developed naturally,” Gray said of the sinker. “I wanted to get a fastball with a little bit more run. Including that and having my four-seam fastball as well, offering two different looks at the same velocity. So with a right-handed-heavy lineup, I thought it was really good to run it back on the outside corner and get it in on their hands, and it was pretty effective today.

“I have to go back to the film and see how many hits ... what a lot of the results were. But I feel like that’s going to be a really effective pitch to end the year and next year, just to offer two different fastballs along with the breaking balls and change-up.”

What stood out with the Nationals’ offense? Luke Voit followed a rough series against the Atlanta Braves — 1 for 12, eight strikeouts — with an 0 for 4 night and three strikeouts in the cleanup spot. Batting right in front of him, Joey Meneses struck out twice against Garrett before logging an RBI double off reliever Huascar Brazoban in the eighth. CJ Abrams had reached on a double to score on Meneses’s hit. Otherwise, the Nationals (52-98) received little production aside from Thomas’s 17th homer and a handful of singles, including two each for Alex Call and Victor Robles.

Where will MacKenzie Gore make his next start? In Rochester, N.Y., with the Class AAA Red Wings at the start of this coming week. After noting that Gore threw well in his last rehab appearance — even strengthening as the game wore on — Manager Dave Martinez ruled out the possibility of him joining the rotation against the Braves. Martinez still wants Gore, 23, to complete five innings and throw around 75 pitches for Rochester. From there, the left-hander could line up to face the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park, perhaps taking one leg of the doubleheader Oct. 1.

Gore’s status is not the only question for Washington’s staff. Patrick Corbin exited his last start early with back spasms and is day-to-day. If he can’t make his next turn, the Nationals are carrying five starters in Gray, Erick Fedde (Saturday), Aníbal Sánchez (Sunday), Cory Abbott and Paolo Espino. And if they stay away from Espino in Miami this weekend, that might signal he’s needed for another spot start.

Martinez also isn’t sure whether Gray will pitch again this year. Washington has promised to manage his innings carefully down the stretch. Six more frames Friday upped Gray’s career-high total to 142⅔.