With sharp fastball, Gray excels in first start of spring

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – That Josiah Gray struck out five Mets batters today during his two-inning spring debut was good news for the Nationals

That he struck out three of those batters swinging at fastballs was great news for Gray.

“Anytime you can get swings and misses, especially on the fastball, is a good feeling,” the right-hander said. “A confidence booster.”

Gray has shown the ability to be a strikeout pitcher at times during his burgeoning career, with five double-digit outings the last two seasons. But most of those whiffs came on breaking balls, with the occasional called third strike sprinkled in for good measure.

What Gray showcased today during an eventual 6-3 exhibition loss was something different. And something the Nationals have been waiting to see for a while.

“That’s a good sign,” manager Davey Martinez said. “I’ve been talking all spring training to him about being in the zone, around the zone. Get those guys in swing mode. … He was awesome. It was a great first outing for him.”

The fastball has long been Gray’s least effective pitch, both because of his tendency to watch it sail wide to his arm side for balls and because of hitters’ tendency to whack the ones that do end up over the plate. To wit: Opponents slugged a healthy .557 off his four-seam fastball last season, though that represented a big improvement from his ghastly .732 mark the previous year.

At times, Gray has abandoned the fastball altogether later in starts and relied on his slider and curveball to get through the outing. But Martinez and pitching coach Jim Hickey continue to reinforce the idea he must be able to establish some fastball command to at least make those off-speed pitches more effective.

So consider today a big step in the right direction. Gray threw 33 pitches in two innings, 23 of those for strikes. And when he got to two strikes, he didn’t immediately turn to something slow or breaking to get guys out. He struck out DJ Stewart, Francisco Lindor and Trayce Thompson, all swinging at fastballs. (He would add swinging strikeouts of Brett Baty on a changeup and Drew Gilbert on a slider.)

Was Gray’s success with fastballs a product of excellent location or just pure stuff?

“Honestly, I don’t think I was dotting the corners,” he said. “I was over the heart of the plate, letting my pitches run. So I think it was more the stuff. Obviously as camp goes on, you have to refine location, because you can’t get away with balls over the heart of the plate.”

Gray also was pleased with the effectiveness of his changeup, the pitch he said is his top priority for improvement this spring.

“Just because I think it can be a really good weapon to left-handed hitters,” he said. “If I can throw that pitch for strikes early, I think it opens up the zone for the fastball, the cutter, the breaking balls as well.”

Other items of interest from today’s game …

* He didn’t homer for the first time in three games, but James Wood did turn in two more quality plate appearances. The 21-year-old outfield prospect delivered a two-out RBI single through the right side of the infield in the bottom of the seventh, then drew a walk in the bottom of the ninth to try to ignite a last-ditch rally.

The Nationals also got offensive contributions from Brady House (two-run single) and Trey Lipscomb (double, run scored) in the third straight game that included eye-opening performances from the club’s top prospects.

“I like our kids, man,” Martinez said. “They’re going to be something else. I’m excited I get to work with them, and hopefully I get to manage them in the major leagues really soon.”

* Keibert Ruiz was called for another catcher’s interference, the third such call against him in two games this spring. And this one was a costly one, the call negating what would’ve been an inning-ending strikeout in the top of the third. Instead, the inning continued and Thompson immediately followed with a grand slam off lefty Robert Garcia.

Martinez, though, insisted afterward the interference call was wrong, that Brett Baty’s bat never touched Ruiz’s mitt. It was the ball that ricocheted off one part of the mitt before it was caught.

“We looked at it; he never (hit Ruiz’s mitt). It stinks,” Martinez said. “But today he did a better job of watching the hitter. He was moving back and forth. That was good. We talked to him about it: When the hitter’s deep in the box, you’ve got to back up. You can’t be at the same spot. He did a better job today.”

* Pitching prospects Cole Henry and Mitchell Parker combined for three scoreless innings, each striking out three batters in their spring debuts.

“I liked Cole 4-5 years ago. It’s just the injuries set him back a little,” Martinez said of the 2020 draft pick whose career was slowed by thoracic outlet surgery. “But when he’s healthy, this is what we’re going to get from him. He threw the ball really well. …

“Mitchell was good. He changes speeds. He knows how to pitch. He pitches at the top of the zone a lot, but he’s got a good mix of pitches as well.”

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