WASHINGTON — Josiah Gray knew what the Astros were capable of at the plate when they came into Nationals Park Friday night on a 10-game winning streak. The bigger question was, how would he work himself out of a jam if he was hit hard by their offense?
The 24-year-old right hander gave up five runs, including two homers, in the first inning of the Nats’ 6-1 loss. Once the early damage was done, the next step in his starting assignment began: keep the Nationals in the game from that point.
“Elite hitters,” Gray said of the Astros. “They’re as good as it gets, so continuing to fine-tune my stuff, make better pitches obviously, but just going out there with the same confidence. After the first, I was like, ‘I’m going to give the team as much as I can.’”
Gray found himself in trouble on the first pitch of the game, with early-count homers being a trend of his. Astros leadoff hitter Jose Altuve went yard off a 94.9 mph fastball to center field. The same inning — after Gray gave up consecutive doubles and an RBI single — Yuli Gurriel belted a two-run homer off a 86.4 mph slider to left-center field in the first pitch of his at-bat.
“’Keep throwing strikes,’” Gray told himself. “They were hitting strikes; I wasn’t throwing them many balls. They were ready to hit from pitch one on, so continue to get in the zone. Don’t worry about the results — worry about pitch to pitch and go from there.”
After Gray locked in for a 1-2-3 second inning, he allowed a solo home run to Yordan Alvarez in the third on a 94.6 mph fastball (the second pitch of the at-bat) to center field. Gray then buckled down and held the Astros scoreless for the remainder of his six-inning start, including retiring 16 of 20 batters from the second frame on.
“As a young guy, you want to establish your fastball,” manager Dave Martinez said. “But sometimes, you’ve got to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to do something different, because these guys are on my fastball.’ And he did that.”
Gray finished the night with six hits, six runs (all earned), two walks, five strikeouts and one hit batter over 94 pitches (59 strikes). In total, he and catcher Keibert Ruiz mixed in 40 percent sliders, 30 percent four-seam fastballs, 21 percent curveballs and 9 percent changeups.
“We had a Hall of Famer [in Max Scherzer] here that gave up tons of home runs; it’s when he gave them up, right?” Martinez said. “So [Gray has] got to understand, that’s who he is. But with that being said, he could limit damage, because his stuff is good. As you could see, when he settled down and he started hitting his spots, he was tough. He was tough for the rest of the night. We’ve got to get him through the game, get him to start right from the first inning on, making sure that he understands that he has to go in-out, stay away from the middle and use all his pitches.”
Of the homers Gray has allowed in 2022, four have come on the first pitch, two on the second pitch, one on the third pitch and one on the fourth pitch. He had not given up a home run before the third inning prior to Friday.
“He can’t just think he’s going to throw the ball down the middle, especially when you’ve got a team like [the Astros] that hits,” Martinez said. “They hit fastballs. Today was a perfect example where he missed early, and he paid. They hit the ball hard.”
With the trio of home runs allowed, Gray’s season total is eight. He is tied with Mariners southpaw Marco Gonzales and Marlins righty Elieser Hernandez for third-most homers surrendered, behind Reds rookie right-hander Hunter Greene (11) and Red Sox veteran righty Nathan Eovaldi (9).
Gray has given up dingers in all but two of his outings this season, including back-to-back multi-home run starts. In his last appearance, he permitted two (both in the fourth inning) against the Angels in Anaheim.
“I wouldn’t say I look at home runs specifically, moreso just the execution of my pitches — am I competitive in the zone?” Gray said. “Today, I was competitive in the zone. Sometimes you get beat, sometimes you won’t get beat. To be able to go six innings against a lineup like that — especially with that first inning — is nothing to be, I guess, upset about, because I’ve had better outings this year where I’ve gone less innings. So, there’s a positive in that to just give this team six innings and build off that for the next one in Miami.”