The Washington Post

Gray’s rocky start ends rough month

- BY ANDREW GOLDEN

Just over a year after the Nationals entered a new era, there was Josiah Gray, gliding to the mound Sunday for his 31st start in a Washington uniform and looking to keep improving during his first full major league season.

During a 5-0 loss at Nationals Park, the right-hander pitched five innings against the St. Louis Cardinals, again showing flashes of who he can become and what he must work on to get there. He allowed four runs on five hits and two walks, his command strong at times and shaky at others. He threw 95 pitches, but only 52 were strikes. His ERA rose to 4.59 after 19 starts as the Cardinals took the rubber game of the weekend series.

Every fifth day, Gray is the most visible member of the Nationals’ rebuild, a key part of the trade that sent away Max Scherzer and Trea Turner on July 30, 2021. At 24, he has flashed his potential but just as often shown he has a long way to go.

“He’s got to be aggressive in the strike zone, get early contact like we talked about,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “But, really, he’s got to really focus on getting ahead of hitters.”

Who will remain on the roster after Tuesday’s trade deadline is unclear, but Gray is certainly part of the long-term picture. That’s because the short-term focus is far from encouragin­g: The Nationals (35-68) went 6-19 in July, narrowly avoiding the worst month since they moved to Washington (5-19 in July 2008).

Still, small steps forward from Gray this season surely are more important to the organizati­on than game results. The Nationals have paid close attention to Gray’s workload, giving him extra rest at times and working to find ways to help him be more effective.

“It’s been a lot of growth,” Gray said of the past year since he joined Washington from the Los Angeles Dodgers. “I’m just . . . adjusting on the fly [and] getting opportunit­ies to go out there and succeed and fail, which is a big part of being a big leaguer.”

Splitting Gray’s outing Sunday into two parts — his first two innings and his final three — tells the story of his season. Gray showed off a put-away slider in the first two innings: He struck out four Cardinals (including stars Paul Goldschmid­t and Nolan Arenado) with the pitch, two swinging and two looking.

Entering Sunday, opponents had a .207 batting average against Gray during their first time through the order. Facing him a second time, that jumped to .243. The third time around, it increased slightly to .247.

No. 8 hitter Corey Dickerson’s bloop double opened the third, and he advanced to third base on a wild pitch. Dylan Carlson — the first Cardinals hitter to face Gray for a second time — hit a slow roller between Gray and second baseman César Hernández; by the time Gray fielded it, his only play was at first, and the Cardinals led 1-0.

Gray lost his command in the fourth. He threw nine straight balls, walking Nolan Gorman and Lars Nootbaar without either seeing a competitiv­e pitch. After a Paul Dejong groundout moved up both, Gray was an out away from escaping. But Dickerson got all of a curveball for a three-run homer that put the Cardinals (54-48) ahead 4-0. Gray hit Arenado with a pitch in the fifth but finished the inning without any damage done, striking out Gorman to end his outing. Dejong added a solo shot off reliever Jordan Weems in the sixth.

On the Dickerson home run, Gray wanted the curveball to drop lower in the strike zone, but Dickerson got too much of it — and Gray crouched to his knees as soon as the pitch left his bat. Gray threw 30 pitches in the inning, but it wasn’t the homer that was on his mind afterward.

“Honestly, it comes down to the two walks,” he said. “Just uncompetit­ive four-pitch walks to two guys I know I can get out. So really frustratin­g.”

Here’s what else to know about the Nationals’ loss:

Bats struggle

The Nationals did not fare well at the plate against Andre Pallante. The Cardinals rookie gave up three hits — all singles — in the first eight innings, and struck out eight. He was pulled after allowing a single and a double to open the ninth. With runners on second and third, Hernández and Juan Soto struck out against allstar closer Ryan Helsley before Josh Bell lined out to center.

Executives link up

Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo was seen during the game chatting with John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations. MASN caught the two sitting together during the second inning. The trade deadline is Tuesday, and the prospect-heavy Cardinals seem to be in the mix to acquire Soto.

Cardinals stars honored

Before the game, the Nationals honored Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols, who are expected to retire at season’s end. The team presented the longtime stars with framed photos signed by the Nationals and custom ballpark seats. Molina is on a rehab assignment, so pitcher Adam Wainwright accepted the gifts on his behalf. Pujols received two seats — to commemorat­e his 400th and 500th career home runs, which both came at Nationals Park.

Robles is rested

Victor Robles got the day off because Martinez wanted to give his center fielder some time to rest after he experience­d cramping during Saturday night’s game and exited before the ninth inning.

 ?? Photos by JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Josiah Gray allowed four runs against the Cardinals, his command strong at times and shaky at others.
Photos by JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST Josiah Gray allowed four runs against the Cardinals, his command strong at times and shaky at others.
 ?? ?? Josh Bell’s lineout to center closed the ninth inning for the Nats, who had runners on second and third with no outs but didn’t score.
Josh Bell’s lineout to center closed the ninth inning for the Nats, who had runners on second and third with no outs but didn’t score.

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