Strong finish could help make Gray's season look better

After he takes the mound one more time next week, what will Josiah Gray consider when he evaluates his 2023 season?

Will the Nationals right-hander look at his breakthrough first half, the 3.41 ERA that earned him the first All-Star nod of his career? Will he look at his second half struggles, the 5.13 ERA that wiped up much of what he had accomplished earlier?

Or is there something else that rises above the rest to paint a more accurate picture of Gray’s season?

“I think the first goal is to stay healthy,” he said. “But then you want to perform. You want to go out there every outing and put the team in a position to win. The last two outings, I’ve been able to do that.”

Gray has performed much better his last two starts. He struck out 10 without issuing a walk one week ago in Pittsburgh, then he allowed one run over five innings Wednesday afternoon in a blowout victory over the White Sox.

Add those two strong performances to the ledger, and the 25-year-old has righted his somewhat wayward ship down the stretch. His ERA, which topped out at 4.13 earlier this month, is back down to an even 4.00. His 8-12 record could be better, but it’s not his fault the Nats scored a grand total of one run in his first four starts, all of them losses that dug him into an early hole.

With one more appearance still to go – most likely Tuesday or Wednesday in Baltimore – Gray has a chance to end the season with a sub-4.00 ERA. He’ll either need to give up three or fewer earned runs across seven innings, or two or fewer earned runs across five innings against the Orioles to seal what may seem like a trivial mark but would carry some psychological weight.

An ERA in the 3’s would be nice. Regardless, the fact Gray will finish with 30 starts and more than 153 innings pitched carries significant weight as well.

For the second straight year, he hasn’t missed a start due to injury. The Nationals did hold him to 28 starts and 148 2/3 innings last season, and they’ve taken advantage of a six-man rotation since August to spread out everyone’s starts, but Gray’s durability has proven to be a major calling card for him.

“We’ve got to remember, too, that he went to the All-Star Game, and pitched,” manager Davey Martinez said. “So he really only had one little break that we gave him. That’s a testament to how hard he works in between starts. It’s good to see him out there pitching the way he’s been pitching.”

There’s still plenty of room for improvement, and Gray will be the first to admit it. He wants to be more efficient, keeping his pitch count low enough for him to complete six and seven innings with more regularity. He wants to cut down on his walks, just as he has cut down on his home runs this season.

Even so, there are plenty of positives to pull from this season. One more solid outing, and Gray could become the first Nationals pitcher to make 30 starts and finish with a sub-4.00 ERA since Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez all did it for the 2019 World Series champions.

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