Soto's big at-bat not enough for Nationals

October 3rd, 2021

WASHINGTON -- There still are takeaways to be gleaned, even as the season winds down. With a strong final start by rookie Josiah Gray and an eighth-inning rally, the Nationals came close to playing spoiler to the Red Sox's American League playoff push on Saturday. But their comeback attempt was thwarted by a four-run ninth-inning surge in a 5-3 Interleague loss at Nationals Park.

“A lot of this group, come next year, they’ve gained some experience [this season] and we’re going to get after it,” manager Dave Martinez said.

Gray tallied seven strikeouts in his last outing of 2021. He threw six innings while allowing three hits, one run -- a homer to Rafael Devers -- and two walks. The 23-year-old retired 15 of the first 18 batters he faced. He heads into the offseason 2-2 with a 5.48 ERA.

“Josiah was awesome,” Martinez said. “I know Josiah and he competes, but I learned a lot about him and he’s going to be OK, he really is.”

While the Nationals struggled to provide run support with Gray on the mound, their bats got hot in the eighth inning as they trailed, 1-0. Ryan Zimmerman’s pinch-hit appearance captured everything he has brought to the Nationals since becoming the team’s first Draft pick in 2005.

​​Just four days after turning 37 years old, Zimmerman connected on a fly ball to center field off reliever Adam Ottavino and dove head first into second base for a rally-starting double. Zimmerman will make a decision this winter about returning for a 17th season with the Nationals, but the crowd gave a blaring ovation to show their appreciation in the meantime.

“He plays the game the right way,” said Martinez of Zimmerman’s hustle. “It’s a learning lesson for our young guys how hard he plays the game.”

Lane Thomas and Alcides Escobar drew back-to-back walks to load the bases for National League Most Valuable Player candidate Juan Soto. After Austin Davis replaced Ottavino, Soto pummeled a Statcast-projected 393-foot sacrifice fly into center field, deep enough for a hustling Zimmerman to tag up and score the tying run.

Soto said he thought Davis was “lucky” the ball didn’t go further -- looking back, he was up on the barrel on the swing -- but he shared after the game there was a little more to the at-bat.

“I just tried to make good contact, but [Davis] started talking trash to me and my mindset just changed to kick his [butt],” Soto said, adding, “He just got me mad, and I don't like when [pitchers] talk trash to me."

As the Red Sox watched the ball fly closer to the warning track, there was a sense of relief when it landed in Hunter Renfroe’s glove and only one run crossed the plate.

“It was scary,” said Red Sox catcher Christian Vázquez. “Thank God it stayed in the ballpark. I take that over a four-run homer, so it was a big pitch there, up in the zone, but it was a big out for us. That’s a big out.”

One inning later, it was Soto who was stifled by a long fly ball as Vázquez sent a deep triple over his head and drove in the go-ahead run. Martinez said he will rewatch game film, but initially thought the ball got behind Soto.

"I tried. I really tried,” Soto said. “I was thinking to jump, but then I stopped because I knew I was pretty close to the wall. Even [Andrew] Stevenson told me I didn't have any chance if I jumped. But I tried my best, tried to catch it and it just didn't go my way."

The Nationals will continue to look toward their future when right-hander Joan Adon gets the start and makes his Major League debut in the season finale. Adon is ranked the Nats’ No. 22 prospect, per MLB Pipeline.

“He worked hard,” Martinez said. “He’s one of our young, up-and-coming guys so I want to see how he does.”