PITTSBURGH – Josiah Gray’s last start came 11 days ago on Sept. 3 against the Marlins. He gave up three runs while throwing 86 pitches in just four innings at Nationals Park.
The Nationals decided to give their young starter a little bit of a reset while trying to get out of a bad funk he had been in since the start of August. Over his previous six starts, Gray pitched to an 8.49 ERA, which raised his season ERA from 3.27 to 4.13.
The extra rest and adjustments made in the meantime worked for Gray as he had his best outing since July. But a lack of run support – a familiar foe for Gray – couldn’t back up the strong start in a 2-0 loss to the Pirates in front of an announced crowd of 10,728. At 1 hour and 50 minutes, it was the shortest nine-inning game in Nationals history and tied for the fastest nine-inning game in the major leagues this season.
“Early strikes, first-pitch strikes, finish them off with my whole array of pitches," Gray said after the game. "Just getting ahead early worked a lot today and just believing in my stuff. Using the whole part of the plate. So it was a good day.”
“He was good," said manager Davey Martinez. "He attacked the strike zone. His direction was way better today. Overall, he threw the ball really well.”
Gray used his whole arsenal to keep the Pirates off balance for most of the afternoon. While also using a new delivery, he completed 6 ⅓ innings of two-run ball on five hits, a season-high 10 strikeouts and no walks on a crisp 88 pitches, 62 strikes.
“For me, it was just how can I, not sort of simplify things, but try and bring out some properties in my delivery that I know where I feel stable, I feel comfortable," Gray said of his new delivery. "So I was working in the bullpen with Hickey and all the guys there. I felt good with it and felt I could roll with it. So the early returns are good, but not just like every day, we have to come to the ballpark tomorrow and get back to work and just continue to build off of it.”
“It was something that we worked on," Martinez said. "We're trying to keep him gathered. Keep him under control. But he was really good today. It's good to see, so we could build off of that.”
The right-hander held the Pirates to just two hits through five innings. The only problem was they were both home runs.
Jack Suwinski hit a leadoff home run on Gray’s first pitch of the bottom of the second, an 87 mph cutter right down the middle of the plate. Then after Gray retired the next 12 batters in a row, Alfonso Rivas hit a solo shot in the bottom of the fifth off a low-and-outside sweeper.
“The first one, he ambushed 0-0," Gray said. "He swings a lot 0-0, but I wasn't expecting him to swing at a first-pitch cutter. But also, it was down the middle, so he did what he was supposed to do. Then the second pitch, 1-2 count, tried to throw a sweeper moreso bottom of the zone, if not back foot, and just left it out over. Still on the edge, but he got to it and hit it a little over the fence. So other than those two pitches, I thought I threw the ball really well.”
Gray did give up back-to-back singles to start the seventh, with fielding and throwing errors by Lane Thomas allowing them to advance into scoring position. But he came back to record his 10th strikeout (one short of his career high) on an 89 mph cutter before departing the game after a conversation with Martinez on the mound.
Jordan Weems entered from the bullpen to get out of the jam and keep the Nats’ deficit at 2-0.
"I told him that he did a great job," Martinez said. "I wanted to keep him around 90 pitches, so Weems was gonna come in. He wanted to stay out there, as any pitcher would. But he understood. So like I said, he did a great job, and I wanted him to finish off with a good taste in his mouth. He'll be back out there in another five or six days, and hopefully he'll continue to do what he did today and be consistent. But today was exactly ... we needed that. Bullpen has been pitching a lot, but I'm really happy for him. I'm proud of him for making the adjustments."
“He was really good," said Keibert Ruiz. "He was throwing strikes, attacking the hitters early in the count. The sweeper was there, the slider, he threw a couple of good changeups, too. He was really good today attacking the hitters.”
What was more impressive: the 10 strikeouts or the zero walks?
“The no walks," Martinez said. "Like I said before, strikeouts are sexy. That's great. But to be able to do what he did 10 strikeouts and no walks is beautiful.”
There was nothing impressive about the Nationals offense. The bats had nothing going against Pirates All-Star Mitch Keller, who tossed eight shutout innings.
The Nationals managed only two hits off Keller: A leadoff single off the first pitch of the game by CJ Abrams and an infield single by Jake Alu in the third inning. Nothing after the third. And they were only able to put four men on base while drawing only one walk and striking out seven times.
“The at-bats were not good," Martinez said. "They weren't crisp. We chased a lot on the zone. We got to do a better job, especially a guy like him. He's also good, but we got to get him in the zone. Today we just chased a lot.”
“He was commanding really good his pitches, too," Ruiz said. "He didn't make a lot of mistakes. When he made mistakes, we didn't gety the results that we want. But he was making really good pitches, too. me.”
Closer David Bednar, who struggled with command in a shaky ninth last night, sealed the shutout in the ninth, the seventh time the Nats have been shut out this season.
Now the Nationals, who have lost three in a row and 10 of their last 13 games, move on to Milwaukee to face the first-place Brewers and their tough pitching staff.
“We're fighting and we're gonna play some good teams here late," Gray said. "So try and mess up the standings a little bit. See what we can do. “