Josiah Gray finishes on a strong note despite Nats’ 1-0 loss to Orioles

BALTIMORE — After Josiah Gray walked Aaron Hicks with two down in the sixth inning Tuesday night, Keibert Ruiz peeked into the dugout while walking to the mound. Maybe, Ruiz thought, Manager Dave Martinez planned to replace Gray with Jose A. Ferrer. That would have given the Washington Nationals a lefty-lefty matchup against Cedric Mullins. Gray, the Nationals’ right-handed starter, had already done more than enough.

But Martinez had no intention of hooking him. Mullins belonged to Gray, giving him one more shot to end his season on a high note. And when he used a change-up to induce a weak pop-up, he clapped his glove once, then hugged Martinez as he reached the foot of the dugout steps. The Nationals would eventually lose, 1-0, to the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards. Gray, though, yielded only one run in six innings, freezing his ERA at 3.91 in a career-high 159 innings.

“It’s been a crazy season,” Gray said. “Obviously being named an all-star was something I never dreamed of, and being able to go out there and succeed and just be in that environment was surreal. And then struggling after the break was also something that was tough. I can’t really put it into words. It made [me be like]: ‘Man, what am I doing here? Where are things going?’

“Being able to rebound from that, obviously the confidence from my teammates, confidence from the staff, it means a lot. It keeps you going out there and working every day, knowing brighter days are ahead.”

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Despite the stingy pitching — with Gray followed by scoreless outings from Jordan Weems and Robert Garcia — Washington couldn’t solve starter Kyle Bradish or the Orioles’ bullpen. The Nationals (69-89) have not scored against Baltimore for 33 innings and counting. On Tuesday, they finished with just three hits, none going for extra bases. And that was only a sliver of an odd night.

Before first pitch, the Orioles announced that Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson had died at 86. After first pitch, the action unfolded under a steady mist, the weather downgrading to a drizzle for some of the middle innings. In the fourth, Joey Meneses hit what he thought was a two-run homer to center, only to watch it lose steam at the warning track and land in Mullins’s glove. And in the eighth, Baltimore’s Gunnar Henderson tried to steal home, only for Garcia to calmly throw to Ruiz before the catcher applied an inning-ending tag.

“I saw him. I saw him,” Ruiz said. “I was surprised, but that’s good baseball. They are playing good baseball; that’s why they’re in the playoffs. But Garcia got him.”

Henderson, the Orioles’ star rookie, began the game with a leadoff homer against Gray, crushing a low cutter, the seventh pitch of Gray’s outing. But Gray, 25, rebounded to strike out Henderson, 22, in their next two matchups. In the third, he beat him swinging on a cutter at the top of the strike zone. In the fifth, he set him down swinging on a change-up at the bottom of the zone.

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The next batter in the fifth, Adley Rutschman, stepped in with two outs and runners on first and second. Again, Gray went to his change-up against a tough lefty, getting Rutschman to bounce into a rally-killing double play. There was growth in those moments, in Ruiz calling for Gray’s fifth or sixth pitch, in Gray trusting it in big spots against big-time hitters.

But Gray’s main takeaway Tuesday was how a well-commanded fastball elevated the rest of his arsenal. He yielded five hits, struck out seven and walked two across 98 pitches.

“He used all his pitches, threw some really good change-ups,” Martinez said. “But his fastball was good. It was electric today. I’m proud of him. He finished up the season really strong and can build off that for next year.”

Gray’s four-seamer, perhaps his most important pitch, was hammered for 24 home runs in 2022. This season, he allowed 22 in total, a step forward in his development. That included only four on his four-seamer, then seven on his slider, seven on his cutter, two on his curve, one on his sinker and one on his sweeping slider. His change-up, a pitch he threw sparingly for most of the season, was shielded from damage because of its low usage.

Yet against the Orioles, a team that could clinch its division title Wednesday, Gray flashed the ability to ride it through high-leverage situations. It wasn’t a bad way to head into a winter of work.

“Tonight summed up the pitcher I can be,” Gray said. “Getting groundballs when I want, getting weak contact, minimizing damage, working around a walk or two, getting a strikeout in big spots. It’s the pitcher I know I can be. It’s a matter of being just consistent about it. This year was better than the last and was better than the year before that. Now next year I have to look at how I can get better.”

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