ARLINGTON, Texas – The only question Josiah Gray needs to answer at this still-early stage of his career is that of consistency. We already know the young right-hander has the ability on any given day to be a successful big leaguer. And we know he’s capable of stringing together several top-notch starts in a row.
Gray just needs to prove now he can do it over the long haul. On afternoons like this, it’s more than appropriate to believe he can.
With seven dominant innings that included nine strikeouts, thanks to some razor-sharp breaking balls, Gray authored the longest start of his career and put the Nationals in position to win. If only the rest of his teammates had been able to do their part to reward him.
A lack of run support left this game tied heading to the bottom of the ninth. Adolis Garcia then blasted a slider over the plate from Kyle Finnegan deep to left-center for the walk-off homer that gave the Rangers a 3-2 victory.
"He's been a rock for us lately," Finnegan said of Gray. "And to see him go out there and dominate is huge for the team. It's unfortunate that we weren't able to pull it out for him tonight, but to get a start like that is really promising for us, and we love to see it."
Gray wound up with no decision, but he did more than enough to earn a win. And when added to his previous starts, his numbers are downright staggering. Over his last five starts, he’s got a 1.24 ERA, 0.965 WHIP and 31 strikeouts in 29 innings.
"It's obviously good to pitch well, but obviously you want to win," he said. "That's the end goal at the end of every game. Whether I go three innings or seven, I want to win the game, as does everyone in the clubhouse. Yeah, it feels good. But there's still that bitter ending to have that loss in the loss column."
On the heels of a career-high 117-pitch start against the Phillies, Gray entered this one with two extra days of rest but some watchful eyes in the dugout to make sure he wasn’t displaying any signs of fatigue. Turns out nobody had any reason to worry, because the Rangers were so aggressive at the plate, the right-hander was able to record outs in rapid fire.
Gray got through the first inning on 12 pitches. He got through the third on seven. His only real mistake came during a brief sequence in the second, when he walked Mitch Garver and then surrendered a two-run homer to Nathaniel Lowe on a fastball. He quickly made an adjustment to prevent that from happening again: He chose to stop throwing fastballs.
Only three of Gray’s 14 pitches in a 1-2-3 bottom of the fourth were fastballs. His first 12 pitches in the bottom of the fifth were all sliders, curveballs or changeups. Ten of his 12 pitches in the bottom of the sixth were something other than a fastball. Fifteen of his 18 pitches in the bottom of the seventh were off-speed.
All told, only 27 of Gray’s 94 pitches on the afternoon were fastballs, compared to the 31 sliders and 31 curveballs he threw, along with five changeups.
"Yeah, I could've thrown more fastballs there," he said. "But I felt like I was keeping them off balance with breaking balls and the changeup. I liked the game plan, and I think it was successful."
And when Gray struck out Leody Taveras to strand the go-ahead runner in scoring position in the seventh, he was fired up as he returned to the dugout, having put forth another in a growing string of top-notch starts.
"I've definitely been shooting for that over the last year up here," said Gray, who had not previously recorded an out in the seventh inning in a big league game. "I felt great to get into the seventh against a good lineup. I felt like I was mixing my pitches well, keeping them off balance, putting them in position to win. It was a lot of fun to be out there for the seventh."
The Nationals desperately wanted to supply their young right-hander with some run support, but runs were difficult to come by all afternoon against the parade of left-handers the Rangers sent to the mound.
"We had our chances," manager Davey Martinez said. "We had our chances early, we had our chances late. We're just struggling driving in runs right now."
In a designed bullpen game, Texas manager Chris Woodward had Brett Martin pitch the first inning, then Taylor Hearn pitch the second through fifth innings, then Brock Burke pitch the sixth and Matt Moore pitch the seventh and eighth. The Nats had no real success against any of them except for Burke, who had the misfortune of facing the heart of the lineup and blowing a two-run lead in the process.
Juan Soto got the rally started with a classic Juan Soto double off the wall in deep left-center. Two batters later, Nelson Cruz turned on an inside fastball and drove the ball well over the left field wall for his eighth homer of the year, drawing boos from a crowd of 36,183 that used to love him when he played across the street a decade ago.
Cruz thought he had a shot at the go-ahead RBI two innings later when he ripped a line drive toward third and saw the ball clip off a diving Josh Smith’s glove before landing in foul territory. It was ruled a foul ball initially, though, and because such a call is not reviewable it could only be overturned if the umpires did so based on what they saw in real time. Despite what was clear on televised replays, none saw enough on their own to overturn it, Cruz wound up hitting into a double play and the game remained knotted at 2, in the hands of the bullpens.
"It was obvious. I saw it right away," Cruz said. "He hit it, and he was in fair territory. It's a judgment call. It's probably tough on him to see the baseball and see where the defender was in that situation. I guess he needed help from the other guys. That hurt us, yeah."
Added Martinez: "I just saw it again, and I hope they look at it tonight. That's all I'm going to say."