Gray learning to control emotions in high-leverage situations

MIAMI – Last night’s outing probably would have gone very differently for Josiah Gray if it had occurred last year. And for the worse.

Then 24, Gray had to learn on the fly during his first full major league campaign while being entrusted to take the ball every fifth day as part of the Nationals rotation. While there were some positives to take away (he stayed healthy throughout the course of the season while pitching a career-high 148 ⅔ innings over 28 starts), there were some learning curves as well (he led the major leagues with 38 homers and led the National League with 66 walks).

But last night’s start, while nothing too exciting to write home about, showed the important improvement Gray has made so far this season.

If it were a start in 2022, it would have likely been an outing that would have gotten away from Gray and fast. Especially against the Marlins, against whom he went 0-3 with a 5.67 ERA and a 1.560 WHIP in six starts last season.

But now in 2023, he was able to take the good and the bad and turn it into his fourth quality start in his last five outings.

“He's throwing the ball really well,” manager Davey Martinez said last night after the game of his young starter. “He's got an unbelievable game plan and routine. And he's done really well. He wants the ball, he wants to pitch deep into games, and you can see that once again tonight. We let him go out there, we let him get out of some jams. He was good.”

Getting out of jams is key. In situations that would have seen him implode and allow big innings last year, he’s getting out of them this year. And flexing his strength while he does it.

Gray gave up back-to-back singles and a walk with one out to load the bases in the second inning last night. He got a double play ball to the right side from Joey Wendle, but he and CJ Abrams couldn’t complete the second out, allowing a second run to score on an error charged to the pitcher for dropping the ball.

That would have spelled disaster in 2022. But not in 2023.

He came right back and got Garrett Hampson to pop out on the second pitch.

In the fifth with runners on the corners and two outs, he got Jorge Soler to hit a soft roller right back to him for an easy out.

In the seventh, now in a one-run game and his pitch count reaching 100, he gave up a single and a double to put two runners in scoring position, threatening to put the game further out of reach. An intentional walk to Luis Arraez loaded the bases for Soler with two outs. But Gray got him to hit a routine grounder to Abrams for an easy out at first.

Again, disaster in 2022. Not in 2023.

“I think he's learned in these high-leverage situations to control the heartbeat and get through it,” Martinez said. “Like I said, today was a big moment for him. He got through it again. With the big hitter up there, got him to hit a ground ball to shortstop, got out of a big inning and kept us in the game.”

“Honestly, I just try to not get too low or high,” Gray said. “After the groundball double, I think to Hampson, obviously bad luck, but just not trying to get myself too riled up. Just trying to stay calm and trust my stuff. So getting that strikeout there to (Garrett) Cooper is huge. But whether I got that strikeout or I didn't, just try not to beat myself up too much and just take every at-bat as a new at-bat and just trying to clean the slate a little bit. So I think I'm doing that a lot better this year to just turn the page and hand it over to my defense and just trust my stuff in the zone and not get too low or too high.”

The night was a grind for Gray. He faced 31 batters while recording 21 outs. He didn’t have his best stuff. But he’s learning to pitch through that so games don’t get out of hand and his team remains close.

“I think today, especially knowing I didn't have my best stuff and being able to get seven innings again, it's a lot of fun,” he said. “And to do it for the team is the most important thing. So it shows me and it gives me that belief in myself that when my stuff isn't the best or I'm having to grind through pitch usage when my slider isn't what I want it to be today, I can still use my other pitches to get outs, get ground outs, get fly outs, popups, wherever it is. So yeah, I think this outing especially is a kind of an ear marker to what future success can look like if I don't have my swing-and-miss stuff that day.”

Another part of that is getting stronger as he gets deeper into games. Last year as he got deeper into games, it often seemed like he would hit a wall and start to fade. That’s what led to erratic command (walks) and hard contact (home runs).

But this year, he’s gaining strength and confidence as the game goes on.

“I think today, especially after the fifth, I saw Luzardo's pitch count. I knew it was getting up there,” he said. “So obviously wanted to stay in the game longer than he did, which we were able to do. And then just being there in the sixth and the seventh just wanting to get quick outs and keep the pitch count down. So whether I give up a single, alright, we can get a double play, or we can get a popup. I know I can do that. So just not being afraid of contact I think that's been a big, big like length for me. To just not be scared of the hitter and just attacking with my best stuff. And if they get hit, they get a hit. We can get the next guy and work around it.”

His ERA is now down to 2.73 after just the one earned run over his seven frames last night. But while his early season success has been perhaps the best development for the Nationals over the first ¼ of the season, Gray wants to make sure it continues over the other ¾, too.

“It's been huge to just have early success,” he said. “But I want to keep it going and look up at the end of the year and see a lot of success up there.”

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