Strasmas, it wasn’t.
Unlike that legendary June night in 2010, when future World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg made an auspicious debut for the Washington Nationals, the franchise debut of prized catching prospect Kiebert Ruiz on Monday night didn’t turn out so well.
With the Nationals plummeting toward the bottom of the National League East, the atmosphere at Nationals Park was more low key than the electrified, near-sellout throng that witnessed Strasburg’s debut. The debut of the battery of Ruiz and Josiah Gray fizzled from the outset, and the Nationals fell to the Philadelphia Phillies, 7-4.
The 23-year-old rookie catcher collected his first major league hit on a bloop single in the eighth inning, but had an otherwise forgettable evening at and behind the plate, working to find a rhythm with Gray.
Still, that didn’t stop him from celebrating his debut with his new team along with his family, who missed his major league debut with the Dodgers.
“It was good. I enjoyed it a lot,” Ruiz said. “My family was here, my wife, my baby, and I was happy they could see me play here in the big leagues.”
It was Gray’s struggles locating his breaking pitches that made the game mostly forgettable for the Nats.
“I just had a little trouble finding rhythm today, with getting the signs, and stuff like that,” Gray told reporters afterward. “I just had trouble finding a rhythm from pitch one, which coupled with the command not being there, it was a tough night.”
Gray also acknowledged that he and his catcher have some work to do.
“We’re still going to have to get on the same page because although we were in the same organization before, we haven’t thrown that much together,” Gray continued. “We’re just going to continue to get on the same page just like I did with Tres [Barrera] and Riley [Adams]. It’s going to be a work in progress just like every other pitcher here, but that’s part of the process.”
Ruiz had a chance to make his Nats debut legendary, coming up in the first inning with the bases loaded, two out, and a chance to give the Nats the lead with a homer, but he popped out to short to end the inning.
“It was a big moment of the game. I wish I could get the hit ... I was chasing the pitch up and in. I’ve got to be better on that,” Ruiz said.
“He did fine,” manager Davey Martinez said.
“Glad he got that first hit out of the way, but he handled himself well. He blocked some balls, made some nice plays blocking balls out there.”
Martinez is also eager to see Ruiz when he’s not battling first-game with a new team nerves.
“He’ll get another opportunity tomorrow,” said the manager.
Gray’s command of the strike zone was off from the start, and the biggest potential villain, Bryce Harper, put the Nats in a big hole in the first inning.
Gray struggled to control breaking pitches in surrendering a leadoff single to Odubel Herrera and Harper’s two-run homer on a curveball too far up in the strike zone.
Boos rained down from fans who still haven’t forgiven Harper for moving on from the Nationals in 2019, as he circled the bases to put the Phillies ahead 2-0 in the first.
But Martinez and Gray both noted progress during the game.
When Harper came up in the fourth with Herrera on first, Gray struck him out on three pitches, this time burying the curveball for strike three.
“Whether you’re young or old, you’re going to make pitching mistakes, you want to get the ball down, sometimes you leave it up,” Martinez explained. “We knew what he was trying to do. He was trying to bury that curveball, back foot. He just left it up, and Bryce is a good hitter. But as you saw, the next one he threw him he threw it exactly where he wanted to throw it.”
Gray would give up three in the first and three more in the third before completing his shortest outing as a National, giving up seven hits in four innings, walking three, and striking out four.
“Hey look, he’s learning as we go along, I think he’s doing great, I really do, so I told him I said, let’s forget about this one and five days from now be able to go again,” Martinez said.
Before striking him out on that perfectly honed curveball, Gray gave up a third-inning single to Harper that ignited a three-run inning, keyed by Ronald Torreyes’ bases-loaded drive off the left field wall. Yadiel Hernández tried to make a leaping catch against the wall, but wound up losing track of the ball after it bounced. By the time he found it, Torreyes was on third, three runs had scored, and the Nats were behind 6-2.
“He just didn’t seem like he had that quick tempo, that rhythm the first couple innings,” said Martinez of Gray in the start. “Last inning, he threw the ball a lot better.”
Philadelphia starter Zack Wheeler surrendered all four Nats’ runs in six innings.
Lane Thomas singled in the second inning with Carter Kieboom on third, and Adrián Sánchez followed with an RBI forceout.
Carter Kieboom added a solo homer, his fifth of the season, in the third, and Juan Soto scored on a fifth-inning wild pitch after a leadoff double.
The Nats brought the tie run to the plate in the eighth, after Ruiz’s hit, and again in the ninth, but could not get anything across.
Starting shortstop Alcides Escobar, the team’s most consistent hitter lately, appeared to be seriously injured after fouling a ball off his left knee in his first at-bat.
Martinez said afterward the injury is a contusion on the inside of his left knee, X-rays were negative, and Escobar is day to day.
And so the optimistic buzz that surrounded the team following Strasburg’s electric, 14-strikeout performance and victory for the Nats were most decidedly absent from the post-game vibe in this contest.
This game was supposed to be about the future, and the team’s seventh loss in ten games certainly wasn’t about the present. But the future stars might not emerge so early, and may develop on different timetables than the ones that once led the Nats to greatness.