Josiah Gray looks sharp in Nationals’ loss to Pirates

PITTSBURGH — Washington right-hander Josiah Gray and his Pittsburgh counterpart Mitch Keller made only two mistakes each through the first five innings of Thursday afternoon’s Nationals-Pirates game.

Keller’s were inconsequential — a single by CJ Abrams to open the game and a third-inning bunt yielded to Jake Alu. Gray’s mistakes, though, carried much more weight. Pittsburgh outfielder Jack Suwinski and first baseman Alfonso Rivas each homered to lift the Pirates to a 2-0 win over the Nationals at PNC Park and a series victory.

“Other than those two pitches, I thought I threw the ball really well,” Gray said. “And I’ll chalk those up, that’s fine. I’ve given up home runs before. So they didn’t derail me at all from the outing, and I was just glad to go out there and put the team in a position to him.”

Gray had one of the best performances of his season, striking out a season-high 10 hitters over 6⅓ innings. He didn’t walk a batter all afternoon. But he was outdone by Keller, who allowed just three base runners over eight innings. David Bednar closed out the ninth.

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Abrams was picked off at second base in the first inning after he strayed too far from the bag. Alu never got past second, and Joey Meneses, who walked in the seventh, never got past first. The Nationals secured their fourth straight losing season with the loss. The game lasted 1 hour 50 minutes, matching the shortest nine-inning game in the majors this season.

“The at-bats today were not good,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “They were not crisp. We chased out of the zone. We got to do a better job, especially a guy like [Keller]. He’s also good, but we got to get him in the zone.”

Gray’s previous start came 11 days ago. In that Sept. 3 outing, Gray allowed three runs over four innings and walked four hitters. To make matters worse, he yelled at a teammate on the field, though he later apologized. That outing ended a stretch that saw him completing six innings just once in six starts.

Gray altered his delivery ahead of Thursday’s game. He typically starts with his back to center field when he begins his windup. But on Thursday, Gray began with his back to first base, almost as if he was pitching out of the stretch. Martinez said the goal is for him to have better direction to the plate, something he has worked on improving over the past two years.

“For me, it was just how can I not simplify things but try and bring out some properties in my delivery where I feel stable, I feel comfortable,” Gray said. “Was working in the bullpen with [pitching coach Jim Hickey] and all the guys there. I felt good with it, felt like I could roll with it. The early returns are good, but just like every day, we have to come to the ballpark tomorrow and get back to work and continue to build off of it.”

Whether Gray sticks with the adjustment remains to be seen. But it was effective against a Pirates offense that has struggled of late.

Suwinski’s home run came in the second inning, when he sent a cutter into the right field seats. Gray tried to get in on the lefty’s hands, but instead he found himself trailing 1-0. Rivas’s solo shot in the fifth came on an 0-2 sweeper.

Gray got five whiffs in seven swings with his sweeper, though. Three of those misses resulted in strikeouts.

“He was really good,” catcher Keibert Ruiz said. “He was throwing strikes, attacking the hitters early in the count. The sweeper was there. The slider. He threw a couple good change-ups, too.”

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Gray pitched into the seventh inning, something he hadn’t done since late July. After he retired Liover Peguero, Martinez came out to take the ball from his hands. The manager patted Gray on the chest during an extended conversation on the mound before the right-hander exited.

“He’ll be back out there in another five or six days and hopefully will continue to do what he did today and be consistent,” Martinez said. “We needed that. Our bullpen’s been pitching a lot. I’m happy for him. I’m proud of him for making the adjustments.”

Note: The Nationals reinstated Thaddeus Ward from the 15-day injured list and optioned Joe La Sorsa to Class AAA Rochester. Ward had been sidelined with right shoulder inflammation since July 3. He has a 7.12 ERA in 22 appearances this year.

The team built Ward up to throw five innings, perhaps signaling that Ward could make a start or two at the end of the season. Ward was the Nationals’ Rule 5 pick this year, meaning he had to be on the team’s active roster by season’s end to stay with the team. Ward cleaned up his delivery during his rehab to have a shorter arm path.

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