Gray cuts his way through six scoreless innings vs. Cards

JUPITER, Fla. – Josiah Gray’s best pitch, it has become clear, is anything but a fastball.

Opponents mashed the Nationals right-hander’s four-seamer last season to the tune of a .304 batting average and .738 slugging percentage. A whopping 24 of the league-high 38 home runs he surrendered came off that pitch.

Gray’s breaking balls – a slider to right-handed hitters, a curveball to lefties – were highly effective, and at times he turned to those pitches almost exclusively to get him through a game. But a starting pitcher can’t really get by like that. He needs to throw something with fastball velocity, even if it combines movement with speed.

He tinkered with a two-seam fastball late last season, wanting to see if down-and-away movement to his right would work. But this winter, he decided instead to focus on developing a cutter, which breaks to his left and actually aligns more with his natural throwing motion.

“He falls that way,” manager Davey Martinez said. “That was our whole objective: If he’s going to fall that way, rather than teach him a two-seamer, just try to teach him a cutter and see if it can allow him to get more in on lefties. And he’s done it well.”

Gray has gone out of his way to use the cutter extensively this spring, and the results have been exceedingly positive. It all came together beautifully this afternoon during a 4-4 tie at Roger Dean Stadium, when he tossed six scoreless innings against the Cardinals and lowered his spring ERA to a miniscule 0.73.

“It’s the weird thing of spring training: Yeah, you want the results, but you don’t want to take them as that’s what’s going to happen in the season, because anything can happen,” he said. “But you don’t want to get lit up over three innings, so having some success is always good to see.”

Gray has enjoyed pretty consistent success this spring, and he’s been getting better as Opening Day draws closer.

The Nationals had him skip his last start and instead throw five innings on a back field to minor league hitters. That allowed him to throw as many cutters as he wanted in a controlled environment, getting a better feel for how the pitch works against primarily left-handed hitters.

Then he went out and incorporated it into today’s outing against the St. Louis lineup. Of the 85 pitches Gray threw, only 22 were four-seam fastballs, and only 11 of those were strikes. He threw 27 sliders, 22 of those for strikes. And he topped out with 28 cutters, landing 20 of them for strikes and inducing a boatload of weak contact.

“He wants to leave spring training knowing he can throw that cutter where he wants it,” Martinez said. “And today was a perfect example of him throwing it where he wants to throw it. It was really good.”

Gray fell behind only four hitters the entire outing. And even when he did, he was able to ditch the traditional fastball he’d throw to try to get back in the count and instead got the job done with a cutter that had movement and kept hitters off-balance.

“Yeah, I think I proved that today to myself,” he said. “Say I missed and brought the count to 1-0 ’cause I missed on a fastball. I could throw a cutter there and get an early looking strike. I think it’s going to work hand-in-hand with the fastball, the slider. It’s just kind of in between both of those and can be a very good pitch.”

Gray’s biggest problem areas in 2022 were walks and homers. Together, those often spelled doom for him. Well, in 12 1/3 total innings this spring, he has walked only one opposing batter. And he has yet to surrender a home run.

There’s still one more exhibition start to go, likely in Sunday’s Grapefruit League finale against the Marlins, and then Gray will be lined up to start the second game of the regular season against the Braves.

He’ll head north with sparkling spring numbers, a newly developed pitch that looks like a winner and renewed optimism for significant progress in 2023.

“Getting hitters in there that are quality major leaguers, just being able to get those guys out gives you confidence time in and time out,” he said.

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