Fearless Gray stays in 'attack mode' and gets back to dominant form

June 13th, 2024

ST. LOUIS -- When opened Wednesday’s game by walking Pirates leadoff hitter Andrew McCutchen and allowing a double to Bryan Reynolds, it looked like more of the same was coming from the Cardinals' ace who entered the night riding a puzzling two-game skid and mired in a six-start stretch of struggles.

However, Gray put whatever worries there might have been wafting around Busch Stadium early in the night to rest by striking out the next three hitters to end a first-inning threat. As it turns out, Gray’s rally -- one pulled off following a fiery pep talk behind the rubber -- was a sign of what was to come the rest of the night from a pitcher the Cardinals brought in to help them get back on track on nights after stumbling.

“Maybe I needed the first two hitters to happen the way that it did,” said Gray, who pitched seven innings of one-run baseball as the Cardinals defeated the Pirates 4-2 at Busch Stadium. “Going into it, I was like, ‘Attack through the middle of the plate’ and I told [catcher] Iván [Herrera] and [pitching coach] Dusty [Blake], ‘Listen, if we’re going to get beat, we’re going to get beat. We’re not going to continue doing the same thing that we’ve been doing. We’re not going down like that.’

“Second and third and nobody out and I remember saying, ‘You’re either going to put up or shut up. You’re either going to live by the words that you said and the plan or you’re going to shy away from it.’ The way you approached the first two hitters was not what you said you were going to do, so then I was able to strike out the next three guys and it got me going, to be honest.”

Gray, who came into the night following losses to the Phillies and Rockies, limited the Pirates to four hits while striking out nine and walking only McCutchen to open the game. It was his fifth time this season striking out at least nine batters.

For the free-agent signee who inked a three-year, $75 million contract in November, Gray looked more like the pitcher from his first five starts of the season (4-1, 0.89 ERA) than the one who struggled in his past six starts (3-3, 5.46 ERA). On Wednesday, Gray rebounded from his wobbly start to register seven strikeouts with his famed sweeper, and he punched out McCutchen and Reynolds twice apiece.

“It’s a real weapon -- the combination of the cutter and that [sweeper],” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said of the pitch that Gray has leaned heavily on the past two seasons to become one of the game’s most dominant pitchers. “Some of the movement on that, there’s not a whole lot of [pitchers] who can do what he does at 85 miles per hour. It’s a real pitch.”

Said Herrera of Gray’s sweeper, which was used 16 times and resulted in 12 swings and seven whiffs, per Baseball Savant: “I’ve said it before, but that [sweeper] is one of the best pitches I’ve ever seen, whether I’m hitting or catching. The [opponents] see it and they still can’t hit it and that’s what makes it really good. When you mix it with his sinker, that pitch is devastating.”

Gray was able to devastate the Pirates' lineup by getting ahead in counts and then making batters chase the sweeper to try to protect the plate. If he’s falling behind in counts – as was the case last week against the Rockies -- it severely hampers the effectiveness of the cross-cutting sweeper.

“It’s everything,” Gray said of the power of getting ahead in counts. “If I’m 0-2 or 1-2 to guys, then they have to [swing]. If I’m 2-0 or 2-1 and get to 3-2, then the margin for error is so much smaller. Getting to 0-2 or 1-2 for me is everything.”

Last week, following the loss to the Rockies, Gray questioned his own strategy of trying to get “too fine” with pitches, a tactic that led to four walks and caused him to lose even though he surrendered just two hits. Gray said that rocky outing led to several days of self-reflection and he focused more on improving his own pitching than worrying about the opponent he was about to face.

In the journal that he keeps to document his performances, thoughts and evaluations, Gray wrote a succinct, but direct message to himself.

“Pitch to win the game!” Gray said of what he wrote in his journal to remind himself to stay in attack mode and not pitch with any sort of fear. “When I pitch to win the game and not worry about anything else, good things tend to happen.”