Rocky start and an early injury put damper on Nationals Opening Day

CINCINNATI — Maybe on the Washington Nationals’ ideal Opening Day, josiah gray shuts out the Cincinnati Reds — the team that drafted him. Maybe Nick Senzel puts on a show at Great American Ball Park, the place he called home for five seasons. And maybe the Nationals silenced the sellout crowd of 44,030, sending them home disappointed.

But the reality Thursday was a far cry from ideal. Gray allowed two home runs to Nick Martini, a 33-year-old designated hitter playing on his first career Opening Day, and surrendered seven runs over four innings. Sensel, signed to be the Nationals’ everyday third baseman, fractured his right thumb fielding groundballs during pregame warmups. And the Nationals stumbled out of the gates with an 8-2 loss.

“I was super excited just to get the ball in the first game, means a lot,” Gray said. “Obviously would’ve been better to throw better for the guys. But definitely a great feeling out there.”

The Nationals came into Thursday with all the optimism that accompanies an opener, perhaps even more so for a team that was just two games under .500 after the all-star break last season (35-37). In West Palm Beach, Fla., the tone of their spring training was of belief — in the youth of a team still in the midst of a rebuild but also one that was coming off a 16-win jump from 2022 to 2023.

“They came into spring training a lot more confident,” Manager Dave Martinez said before the game. “They got some time under their belt now in the major leagues, so they’re a little bit more relaxed now. I just want those to continue what they’re doing, continue to process everything and build from what they did last year.”

The offseason personnel moves reflected the franchise’s belief in its young players. The team signed just three players to major league deals: first baseman/outfielder Joey Gallorelievers Dylan Floro and Senzel.

Senzel, eyeing a bounce-back year that could lead to a long-term deal, signed a one-year contract. But after a spring training that saw him hit .231 in 43 plate appearances, he was fielding groundballs pregame when he started looking at his right thumb and shaking his hand. He left the field with a trainer, and by the end of batting practice, Senzel was in the dugout with his thumb in a cup of water. ,

“The blow right before the game today really stung a little bit,” Martinez said. “It’s awful. He was in a good spot, and we were in a good spot with him. He was excited for today and just a freak accident. We’re going to miss him, but he’s going to work really hard to get back as soon as possible.”

To take Senzel’s place, the Nationals are calling up infielder Trey Lipscomb, who could make his major league debut as early as Saturday, according to multiple people familiar with the team’s plans. The 23-year-old infielder, whose natural position is third base, hit .400 this spring and was in competition for the second base job with Luis García Jr. through the final day of spring training. Martinez said toward the end of camp that if Lipscomb made the team out of camp, he would play every day. The expectation is that he will be the team’s everyday third baseman, though. Ildemaro Vargas could see time as well.

Gray, meanwhile, left his start healthy but disappointed. The 26-year-old right-hander, the team’s all-star a season ago, is considered one of the team’s building blocks. Gray’s season trajectory was the opposite of the team’s — a strong start before a subpar finish. But Martinez rewarded him with his first Opening Day start.

Gray’s improvement last season was primarily because he limited the long balls after leading the majors in home runs allowed the previous season. But his walks remain a point of concern after his walks per nine innings increased to 4.5 a season ago from 4.0. He walked the first batter he faced on five pitches but settled in for a scoreless first inning.

In the second, Gray allowed a weak infield single, a walk and another bloop single to Spencer Steer, and the Reds had an early 1–0 lead. Then a familiar demon haunted Gray when he left a cutter over the heart of the plate that Martini sent into the right-center field seats, giving the Reds a 3-0 lead.

One inning later, with a pair of runners on, Gray made another mistake against Martini. Another breaking ball over the plate — this one a curveball — that Martini blasted to right, putting the Nationals in a 7-0 hole. Martinez said Gray’s fastball was effective in the first and fourth innings but felt he didn’t use it enough in the second and third.

“The two pitches that were hit for homers were a cutter and a curveball,” Gray said. “Take those out, and I think the fastball kind of sets me up to attack with my other pitches. I threw a lot of strikes today. Obviously seven runs is seven runs, but I thought the fastball was solid. I thought every pitch could’ve been better.”

Gray pitched a scoreless fourth inning, ending the day on a high note. A combination of Robert Garcia, Floro, Matt Barnes and Tanner Rainey teamed up to hold the Reds to one run over the next four innings.

But the Nationals found little success against Reds starter Frankie Montas. They were aggressive during the early portion of the game to no avail. Montas threw 33 pitches through the first three innings and faced one batter above the minimum. Washington had only four singles off Montas in six innings. Eddie Rosario’s two-run home run in the seventh inning accounted for the entirety of the team’s offense.

“We got an off day tomorrow. We got to come back strong,” Martinez said. “Opening Day is always weird, a lot of adrenaline. We uncharacteristically chased a lot of pitches. We didn’t do that in the spring. We got to get the ball in the zone.”

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