Gray finishes strong, but Nats shut out by O's again (updated)

BALTIMORE – It shouldn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. The results of tonight’s start weren’t going to define Josiah Gray’s season, in either direction. But it’s funny how a slight disparity in certain numbers can feel significant in the baseball world, and this was one of those cases.

Gray entered his final outing of the year with an ERA of exactly 4.00. If he could hold the Orioles to two or fewer runs in five or more innings, he would lower that number. If not, he would raise it.

So when the 25-year-old proceeded to allow just one run (a leadoff homer, at that) over six strong innings, it felt important. He didn’t get the win, because the Nationals lineup once again was shut out by Baltimore in a 1-0 loss at Camden Yards. But on a purely personal level, Gray can now rest easy knowing the back of his baseball card will forever show a 3.91 ERA for his 2023 season.

Sure, it’s a far cry from the sparkling 2.77 mark he held at the end of May, or the 3.30 mark he held when he was selected for his first All-Star Game in early July. But anybody who watches baseball with any regularity can tell you the difference between an ERA that starts with a 3 and an ERA that starts with a 4.

"I think anytime you can finish on a strong outing, it takes you into the offseason with a positive mindset," Gray said. "You feel like you can kind of check that box. I've been able to have a last couple good outings, but this one feels sweet going into the offseason knowing some of the changes I've made over the last three outings have bred results. I can focus on those things and look forward to the offseason being positive."

Despite the solid ERA, Gray finishes his season with an 8-13 record, a product of too little run support from his teammates, who gave him none tonight.

Unable to sustain anything against Kyle Bradish, who completed eight innings, the Nationals were shut out by the Orioles for the third time in as many head-to-head meetings this year. They haven’t scored in their last 32 innings against Baltimore, their most recent one having been produced on a home run by Luke Voit on Sept. 14, 2022.

Not that the Orioles did much at the plate themselves tonight, aside from one early blast.

Gray’s night actually began in an all-too-familiar fashion. And not a positive one. When Gunnar Henderson blasted the seventh pitch he saw to right-center for a quick 1-0 lead, it represented the fourth leadoff home run surrendered by Gray this season, the 10th by any Nationals starting pitcher.

The right-hander immediately recovered, though, and wound up with one of his best outings since the All-Star break.

Most impressively, Gray was able to pitch his way out of the few jams he encountered not via soft contact but via strikeout. He got Ramón Urías on a high fastball with two on and two out in the second. He got Henderson and Adley Rutschman back-to-back on cutters in the third. And he got Henderson again with two on the fifth, this time on a well-executed changeup (the first one he threw all night).

And when he followed that with a double-play grounder off Rutschman’s bat (on another changeup), high-fiving catcher Keibert Ruiz on his way back to the dugout, it was fair to ask if that would be his final pitch of the season.

"The changeup, that was the pitch that impressed me a lot tonight," Ruiz said. "In those big situations, he located really good."

So good, that wouldn't be his final pitch of the night. Martinez decided to send Gray back to the mound for the sixth, and the young starter rewarded his manager for that show of faith. He recorded one more strikeout (his seventh of the night), then pitched around a two-out walk to post another zero and depart to handshakes in the dugout after a 98-pitch gem.

"I think tonight summed up the pitcher I can be," he said. "Getting ground balls when I wanted. Getting weak contact. Minimizing damage. Working around a walk or two. Getting a strikeout in big spots. It's the pitcher I know I can be. It's just a matter of being consistent about it."

Had Gray been roughed up tonight, it wouldn’t have changed the organization’s feelings about his season. But at the end of the night and nearing the end of a long season, it sure is nice to look at a key part of the Nats’ long-term rotation plans finishing his year with 30 starts and a sub-4.00 ERA.

"He's still young. He's still learning," Martinez said. "He's learning a lot about himself. He’s learning a lot about what he can and can’t do. But I know that in the future he’s going to be a guy to be reckoned with. I’m not just talking about in short term, I’m talking about long term. I think with him, we have a chance to win here and get back to where we need to be, and that’s to be in the playoffs."

"This year, it's been a good year," Gray said. "But I know there's a lot more work to be done."

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