NEW YORK – Every Josiah Gray start so far this season has resulted in a loss. Both for the Nationals and the right-hander himself.
That’s not all on Gray, however. Take away his rough first outing against the Braves and he has been excellent over his last three, pitching to a 2.16 ERA and only one home run allowed.
That stretch of dominance carried over into tonight’s series opener against the Mets, as the New Rochelle, N.Y. native showed in front of 20,507 fans near his hometown to earn a 5-0 win, his first of the season.
It’s also his first win since July 6, when he recorded a career-high 11 strikeouts over six innings of two-run ball in Philadelphia.
"Just going with the game plan early on," Gray said after the game. "Just seeing how they were adjusting to my stuff, how they were swinging the bat, how they were taking pitches and just a lot of good opportunities early to just throw strike one. So the more we did that, the more we kind of just commanded the zone and were able to utilize that. So just doing a lot of strikes early and having the putaway pitches was (what) led to a lot of success today.”
Gray used his full arsenal to keep the Mets lineup off balance. He collected his nine strikeouts in a variety of different ways, per Statcast: four with his slider, two with his curveball, two with his fastball and one big one seemingly with his new cutter, but later confirmed by the pitcher as a slider.
"He really attacked with his fastball down," manager Davey Martinez said. "I think he surprised them a lot just throwing his fastball down for strikes. He's been throwing a lot of first-pitch strikes and then he uses his cutter and slider from that. I think, honestly, the key for him is the fastball. We talk about it all the time: Fastball in the strike zone, keeping it down, everything else works for him. So what a great, great day, man.”
The strikeout of Starling Marte with the cutter-turned-slider came at the biggest moment for Gray. Entering the fifth at just 55 pitches, he got himself into a jam when a slicing ball from Brett Baty landed on the chalk in the left field corner for a double. Two batters later, top Mets prospect Francisco Álvarez singled to put runners on the corners. And then a four-pitch walk to Brandon Nimmo loaded the bases and put Gray in his first jam of the evening.
But after a visit from pitching coach Jim Hickey, the young right-hander refocused and came right back to get Marte swinging at an 87 mph slider low and away in a 3-2 count.
"The slider was there, the fastball was there when we needed to," said catcher Keibert Ruiz. "He was making pitches when we needed. The at-bat to Marte was a big pitch right there. I'm glad he got through the sixth inning and we got a win.”
The rest of Gray’s outing was complete dominance. Before Baty’s at-bat with one out in the fifth, he had retired 13 of the 15 batters he faced with eight strikeouts and only two singles allowed. He finished his six scoreless innings with just four hits, one walk and nine strikeouts on 91 pitches, 60 strikes. His ERA now stands at 2.93, the first time it's dipped below 3.00 in his major league career.
“I think we're on the same page in terms of you early-count fastballs, late-count fastballs, late-count breaking balls," Gray said of his work with Ruiz. "We were in sync today, and to do it against a lineup like that is a lot of fun and it kind of gives you that support and that confidence for next time.”
Gray entered the night needing run support more than anything. In his four starts coming into tonight, he had not received a single run of support while in the game, making him the only major league pitcher to make at least three starts and not receive a single run of support while pitching. Only ﬁve pitchers in the majors had made at least one start and received zero runs of support while they were in the game this season, and Gray was the only one to have pitched more than 10 innings.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, run support is tracked by game total, not just while the pitcher is in the game. Per Elias, Gray was the eighth pitcher in major league history to get one or fewer runs of support in his ﬁrst four starts of the season, the only run coming on Ruiz’s ninth-inning home run April 1 against the Braves. The last prior to Gray was the Padres’ Dustin Moseley in 2011.
Gray needed to wait only one inning for his run-support fortunes to change. His batterymate Ruiz, again, supplied the run support with a second-inning home run off Mets rookie starter José Butto, starting tonight in place of the suspended Max Scherzer.
Ruiz hit a 93 mph fastball from Butto 105.4 mph off the bat and deposited it 414 feet over the center field wall.
“A good pitch to hit and a good swing," Ruiz said of his homer.
But unlike that game against the Braves, it wasn’t just Ruiz knocking in the runs. Joey Meneses had another big night hitting fourth as the designated hitter, going 3-for-5 with RBI singles in the third and sixth, and Luis García again found success in the No. 2 hole, hitting a two-run double to provide the extra padding in the sixth.
“I know these guys have been clawing away to try and give me run support the whole year," Gray said of his offense. "To see them do it early and to see them do it late there is a lot of fun. For them to go out and score five runs is awesome. I know they're gonna continue to do it, continue to go out there and support us because we're all going to fight and do our jobs. So it was a lot of fun today to see them go out there and swing the bats and me kind of pull my weight and keep throwing zeros.”
The Nationals finished with 11 hits and six walks on the night. On this night with Gray going six scoreless and Mason Thompson collecting a nine-out save while facing the minimum over the last three innings, the five runs were enough for a victory. But they would still like to see more damage done.
“We put the ball in play. We took our walks. That's part of who we are," Martinez said. "I'd like to see us extend some of those innings, bases loaded again, just to see if we can drive some more runs in. But that's going to come. We're doing better on just understanding who we are as hitters, swinging at the pitches that are strikes. And we're going to continue to get better. But that's it. These guys got to take their walks, we got to keep putting the ball in play, and they did that tonight.”
"That's something as the whole group, we gotta keep getting better at that and helping the starters," Ruiz said. "We just got to keep moving forward and keep working on our own in having good at-bats.”
This night, however, belonged to Gray, who put together the most dominant start of his young career while pitching near his hometown. And thanks to long-awaited clutch hitting, he has the win to show for it and share with the more than 20 friends and family that came out to watch in person.
"I think every part of this today was a lot of fun," Gray said. "And being able to, after we're done here, and being able to go see family and friends is gonna be that much more fun to, you know, embrace, and they all got to see a good game today. So it's that much more special to get my first win here in New York, on the season and in New York as well, is pretty cool and definitely one I'm going to enjoy.”