December 9, 2022

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Woodward delivers challenge, then Gray answers call

4 min read
Right-hander battles, shakes off rust in first start back from IL

SEATTLE — The revamped Rangers took the field Tuesday night with hopes of finding the mojo to power them through a bounceback 2022 season.

Three hours before the first pitch of what would become a 6-2 loss to the Mariners at T-Mobile Park, manager Chris Woodward spoke for more than 15 pointed minutes, challenging his pitching staff to stop being tentative and just let it rip.

“That guy tonight for them? That crazy person over there that grunts every pitch?” Woodward said of the man who would wind up beating them Tuesday night, reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray.

“He’s going to go 100 pitches as hard as he can, every single guy. It doesn’t matter if it’s the batboy hitting. He’s coming at you. He’s going to rip your throat out. And that has to be our mentality.”

When the subject of the Rangers’ starter, Jon Gray, came up, Woodward spoke in hopeful terms.

For one thing, Gray was actually pitching again, having returned from a 10-day injured list stint because of a middle finger blister that forced him to exit his April 8 Opening Day start against the Angels after four innings.

And then there was this: If the rest of the Rangers’ pitchers could be inspired by the competitive demeanor of anyone on the staff, Woodward opined, maybe it would very well be the hard-throwing right-hander who was signed in the offseason for four years and $56 million to be Texas’ main man on the mound.

Tuesday’s results did not help Texas in the standings, of course. They are 2-8, they’ve lost four games in a row, and they’re already four games out of first place in the AL West. But Gray’s resilience and moxie was clear. Despite a rough first two innings in which a hit batsman, a walk, and two very loud home runs accounted for a four-run deficit, he persevered through three more scoreless frames, retiring 11 of his last 12 batters and finishing with four strikeouts and one walk.

“He definitely went out there and attacked,” Woodward said after the game. “You could tell he was a little rusty early on, but once he got out there and started throwing some pitches, his stuff looked good.”

Granted, there are still issues that the Rangers arms need to iron out. The rotation is still seeking its first win of 2022. Gray’s two homers allowed — and one given up by reliever Spencer Patton in the seventh — meant that the team has surrendered 11 in the last five games.

But for a team looking for a spark and something to build on while there’s still another 152 games to be played, Gray’s return and resilience provided it.

With one out in the first inning, he hit Ty France with a pitch, walked Jesse Winker, and then hung an 0-2 slider to Eugenio Suárez that ended up over the center-field wall to put him in a quick 3-0 hole. In the second, his first pitch of the inning was a fastball that was ambushed by Jarred Kelenic at 110.3 mph and hooked into the right-field foul pole.

“Terrible first inning,” Gray said. “I didn’t have the bread and butter [slider] today, but we were able to work out with other pitches, use the changeup and the curveball, and move the fastball around to get out of everything and stretch it out to five innings, but the damage was already done before I could even make an adjustment with the slider.”

Rather than giving in or giving up, however, Gray went back to work. He retired the next nine batters, two of them by strikeout, gave up a single to Tom Murphy, and then got France to end the fifth. Best of all, according to Gray, was that the blister is in the rearview mirror. Maybe soon the losses will be, too.

“From here on out, it’s going to be go-time,” Gray said. “I’m excited for the next one. I don’t think I’ll have the issues early on the next time, so I’m really looking forward to it.”

The Rangers are looking forward to him taking the ball every fifth day, too. And if there’s any indication, Woodward’s recent challenge to all of the Texas arms might have been received.

“I thought every one of our guys did well,” Woodward said. “They went out there and competed.”

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