Because when Max Scherzer winced late in the third inning, just enough for his manager to know something was wrong, it was Gray who got the call to start warming up, and fast.
And when Scherzer walked off the mound with a back spasm before he threw a pitch in the fourth inning, it was Gray – a career starter with one regular season relief appearance to his name – who came in and relieved him with three crucial innings, which meant a sometimes-shaky Rangers bullpen did not have to get more outs than it could handle.
“What an effort,” Scherzer said. “Huge kudos to him for doing that. That shows you why we’re a great team.”
Scherzer does not know if he will be able to pitch again. The Rangers also lost postseason star Adolis García to left side tightness after an awkward swing in the eighth inning. He left to get an MRI exam soon after. They do not know whether he will be available again this year, either. Though he was quiet offensively Monday (for once), García threw out a runner at the plate from deep right field in the second inning. If he cannot play, the Rangers will miss him on both sides of the ball.
But they will still have Marcus Semien and Corey Seager, and Monday night at least, that was plenty. Semien singled home a run then scored when Seager ambushed a first-pitch changeup from Arizona starter Brandon Pfaadt in the third. He sent it 421 feet to right field, his second homer of the World Series and fifth of the postseason.
Semien, Seager and Gray were the big names General Manager Chris Young signed when he began trying to turn the Rangers back into winners. He committed more than half a billion dollars to the three of them, though the $56 million he gave Gray for four years grabbed far fewer headlines than the deals for stars Semien and Seager.
“Jon Gray was right there with us. [Chris Young] went out there and got the right guy in that pitching market,” Semien said. “Obviously, he wanted to go after some hitters. I feel like when we got Jon Gray I was a quieter move that not a lot of people talked about. Last year he had a couple injuries, but when the stuff was good and the fastball was 97, he was great. That’s what he’s doing.”
When the Rangers signed Gray to a four-year deal before the 2022 season, he became the first brick in what would become an extensive remodel of their starting rotation, a remodel so extensive that by the time the Rangers finally completed their rapid transformation into a World Series contender with names like Scherzer and Nathan Eovaldi on the depth chart, Gray had been pushed out of the postseason starting rotation entirely.
Part of that demotion was the result of his performance. He struggled at times in the second half, then went on the injured list with right forearm tightness in late September, just when the playoff roster was coming together. Part of it was because of the Rangers’ roster reshuffling: With deadline acquisition Jordan Montgomery pitching like a Cy Young candidate, Eovaldi returning to form, and Scherzer coming back from his shoulder injury, Gray and fellow career starters Andrew Heaney and Dane Dunning all ended up in the bullpen at times this month.
“I’m like, okay, make sure I’m not in anyone’s seats that’s been there all year long,” Gray said of moving to the bullpen. “Don’t mess with anyone else’s routines, whatever they’ve got going on, that was something I did have to learn.”
But after he made just one relief appearance in nine regular seasons, Gray found a strange comfort in the bullpen when he joined it during the American League Championship Series. He felt his stuff tick up, his margin for error grow, his game-planning simplify.
He threw an inning in relief in Game 3 of the ALCS and allowed a run. He threw 1⅔ scoreless innings in the Rangers’ extra-inning win in Game 1 of the World Series. On Monday night, he allowed just one hit and struck out three in three scoreless innings his team simply couldn’t do without.
“He’s gotten enough time off that he feels good and healthy. He’s throwing conviction with all his pitches,” Rangers catcher Jonah Heim said. “You see his heater up to 97, 98, and he’s got that wipeout slider. His stuff has been really sharp.”
At times late in the regular season, some of them very important, the Rangers’ bullpen could not be trusted. It blew leads and saves, so many that one could argue it cost the Rangers the AL West title. And just 48 hours ago, a combination of Texas relievers surrendered seven runs in the final three innings of Game 2, runs that let a once-close game slide firmly out of reach.
But Gray made sure they did not have to walk the tightrope for long. Josh Sborz, recently nasty, threw a scoreless seventh. Then, for the first time in this World Series, enigmatic and recently unpredictable Aroldis Chapman pitched an inning – and a crucial one.
When the Rangers traded for Chapman in June, it looked like a move made with an eye toward October. Their bullpen was not as deep as it needed to be, and Chapman was one of the more prominent relievers certain to be available at the deadline. So instead of waiting until late July, the Rangers jumped ahead of the market, determined to acquire the kind of experienced late-inning fireballer who could help them win games when they needed them most.
But Chapman has not been that reliever, struggling to repeat his delivery at times, struggling with command at others. That he had allowed just one earned run in seven outings this postseason was deceptive, as few of those innings were as stress-free as that number might suggest. And when he came in in the eighth inning Monday night, he immediately conjured some trouble.
He allowed a leadoff double to Emmanuel Rivera and a single to Geraldo Perdomo, the bottom of the Diamondbacks’ order, which provided the first run Arizona had scored all evening. But when it looked like he might collapse, he got a double-play ball and got out of the inning. José Leclerc, who has emerged as the Rangers’ best closing option, did just that in the ninth.
On the first of three games in three days, the Rangers used three late-inning relievers for one inning apiece. The Diamondbacks used four relievers and will be starting another one, Joe Mantiply, in what will be a bullpen game in Game 4.
“We were able to stay away from a lot of guys because of Jon Gray’s effort,” said Rangers Manager Bruce Bochy, who had been considering Gray to start Game 4 but settled instead on Heaney. Dunning will be fresh. So will the rest of the Texas bullpen absent its three high-leverage arms, though none of them had to do more than usual Monday night. When Scherzer’s back spasms set their plans aflame, it was Gray who put them out – and did so well enough that his team not only won Game 3, but should be just fine for Game 4, too.