PHILADELPHIA – Josiah Gray stepped into the tunnel outside the Nationals clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park to meet with a small group of reporters. He was wiping his eyes, which were red and watery. An unusual sight when most interviews are done by his locker.
The All-Star treatment.
Gray was named an All-Star for the first time, the Nationals’ lone representative at the 2023 Major League Baseball All-Star Game next week at T-Mobile Park in Seattle. Manager Davey Martinez made the announcement to the team before today’s finale against the Phillies.
"Davey just brought us all in for a team meeting and said he had a quick message for us,” Gray said. “Told us we had one All-Star and it was me. So it was really cool to have that moment. I talked to the guys shortly, got to embrace it."
Each major league team gets at least one representative in each year’s Midsummer Classic. But a lot of attention was surrounding Lane Thomas and Jeimer Candelario as the likely choices for the Nats. But Martinez has mentioned Gray when asked about the All-Star Game over the last few days.
Although it was on his manager’s radar, it wasn’t on the young right-hander’s.
"I was shocked,” he said. “I was shocked, just because I think there are two other guys who are really deserving. Hopefully, they can find their way there. Just to kind of be in that moment and hear your name and everything that goes into it, what this year has kind of been, ups and downs and everything in between, to kind of have it get to this point is really cool and something I'll always embrace."
Gray continued to wipe his eyes, fighting back tears that flooded him once the news finally sunk in.
“I kind of just stopped in my tracks, just because I didn't think it would be my name,” he said. “You dream of playing baseball at this level for years and years as a kid, and being an All-Star is kind of the cherry on top. So to hear my name was really cool, and being able to share it with all the guys and embrace with them was really special."
While Thomas and Candelario certainly are worthy of selection, it’s not as if Gray snuck in by chance. His numbers dictate that he earned his spot on the National League roster, which will be managed by Rob Thompson of the defending NL champion Phillies.
Gray leads the Nationals’ starting rotation and ranks 10th in the NL with a 3.30 ERA through 17 starts this season. He also leads the Nats with six wins, a .247/.330/.396 opponents’ slash line, 1.13 home runs per nine innings and 1.38 walks/hits per innings pitched. His 86 strikeouts and 8.12 strikeouts per nine innings are second among Nationals starters.
“Awesome,” Martinez said of Gray’s selection. “We talk about Josiah all the time and what he's done, how much he's matured and where he's at. But this is big for one of our young players. I'm proud of him. He's learning a lot of stuff, he's getting better. Every time he's out there he gets better. He's understanding what he needs to do to be successful. But to make an All-Star team, and you're in your first one, it's awesome. I'm proud of him.”
The 25-year-old ranks second in the majors and is currently in the top five in Nationals history (2005-present) with a 2.39 ERA on the road so far this season, highlighted by the six innings of one-run ball he pitched here Friday night. He has allowed three earned runs or fewer in 10 of his 11 road starts while posting a 4-3 record along the way.
"Just selection, usage, just being smarter out there, leaning on my stuff,” he said of his success this year. “Keeping guys off balance a little bit better. Being a little bit more unpredictable, throwing more strikes, more quality pitches. Just a culmination of things and it's really been successful. But like I said, the work doesn't stop here. I have three more months-plus to go. Just looking forward to the next start here on Wednesday and going from there."
Gray enjoyed his best stretch from April 6 to May 21, pitching to a 2.05 ERA (12 earned runs over 52 ⅔ innings), the fourth-best mark in the NL over that span. He struck out 43 batters and allowed just two home runs during the best nine-game stretch of his career.
Three other signature outings of his season came during that stretch. He struck out a season-high nine batters in six innings of four-hit, shutout ball in a win over the Mets. He then completed seven innings in back-to-back starts, first on May 10 at San Francisco (five hits, two earned runs, four walks and three strikeouts) and May 16 at Miami (seven hits, one earned run, three walks and five strikeouts)
Put all of that together and Gray is a much-improved pitcher compared to last year, when he led the majors with 38 homers allowed and the NL with 66 walks issued.
"It shows me I can battle, I can fight back,” he said. “Last year I was able to grow and become a full-time starter with this team. This year, there's been some good, there's been some bad and there's been some so-so. But to be able to go out there and give the team a chance to win. In spring training, that was my No. 1 goal. Just give the team the chance to win. I know I'm going to take care of my stuff off the field, whether that's mixing in some new pitches, doing deeper dives with hitters, whatever it may be. Just keeping the team in the game. Being able to do that for 17 starts coming into this opportunity, and I'm forever grateful for Davey, (Mike) Rizzo, everyone in that clubhouse just leaning on me and believing in me."
As it was a surprise, Gray believes two guys in that clubhouse should join him in Seattle: Thomas and Candelario.
"Absolutely. I guess I can name-drop, if that's OK,” Gray said. “I think Lane has played some of the best outfield in the National League, if not the major leagues, this year. What he does on the offensive side, we all see it. He has double-digits home runs with a fair amount of stolen bases, a lot of doubles, hitting .300. I think he leads the NL in assists. The accolades are off the charts right now and I think he is very deserving, so I hope they find a way to get him there.
“And then Jeimer, he's been a mainstay at third base. His defense has been impeccable. His bat from both sides has been really good. A lot of doubles, as well. So I have nothing but good things to say about those guys, and they've really propelled our offense so far this year and I'm really happy to see them have success and hopefully both of them can find a way to Seattle and see what happens. It would be great to have another Nationals teammate there and not having to meet everyone new, just having some comfortability there. Those guys are awesome and I'm just hoping they can make their way out there."
The door isn’t completely shut on Thomas or Candelario. Some players drop out due to injury or lack of interest in the festivities, so some spots may open up. After the position-player starters were selected via fan vote, Major League Baseball makes the decisions to fill out the rest of the rosters.
“We got a couple other guys I really felt like could make it, and who knows what's gonna happen in the next couple of days,” Martinez said. “But I'm proud of Josiah. I really am.”
For now, Gray will be the lone All-Star there wearing a curly W on his cap. And now is the time to enjoy the moment and share it with friends and family.
“I called my mom,” he said. “I had to like repeat it to her three or four times. She was like 'What? What are you telling me?' So she sat down and she was like, ‘Oh my god.’ She was really happy for me, really proud of me. And then I called my girlfriend as well. Super short. She was on the bus with all the other family members getting ready to come over here. They were all excited. So yeah, those are the two people I called, and I'm going to call my brothers here shortly and let them know and keep it kind of close-knit … I'm sure I'll be hearing from a lot more people.”
The 93rd Major League Baseball All-Star Game will be played on July 11 and will be televised on FOX.