Gray flirts with perfection, clinches sweep for Cards

June 23rd, 2024

ST. LOUIS -- The first time that Cardinals ace felt the magnitude and weight of a potentially historic afternoon on Sunday was when he ran the count to 3-1 on Giants No. 9 hitter Austin Slater with two outs in the top of the sixth inning

It was then that Gray, 34, calmly stepped back behind the rubber and silently gave himself the kind of pep talk that was both instructional and motivational.

“Once I got to 3-1, I remember stepping off the back and continuing the mindset of, ‘All right, challenge him! Throw it right down the middle and see what happens,’” recalled Gray, whose perfect game bid ran for 20 batters into the seventh inning. “It was about reminding myself to do it with an attacking mindset. That’s really the first time I felt it.”

Gray’s attacking mindset -- and his dominant stuff -- set the tone on a day when the Cardinals stole four bases and they beat the Giants, 5-3, to finish off a three-game sweep. A National League-best 24-13 since May 12, the Cardinals (39-37) have surged to two games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2022 season.

How they got there -- with Gray attacking hitters, Cardinals baserunners taking what the opposition gave them and their hitters being aggressive against Giants ace Logan Webb -- said the most to St. Louis manager Oliver Marmol. It was the continuation, he said, of a mindset the team has had for more than a month.

“You look at this series, and specifically at today’s game, that’s the style of baseball this city subscribes to,” Marmol said. “We applied pressure nonstop today. … [Alec Burleson] takes two bags, [Pedro] Pagés takes a bag. It was nonstop pressure. If they gave us an inch, we took every bit of it. That’s the style of baseball we need to keep playing. If you look back at the past month, guys are pretty convicted about that style of ball.”

Marmol would have been hard pressed to find someone more convicted than Gray was with his stuff. Early on, Gray liked how the ball was coming out of his hand, and he liked the snap on his cutter and sweeper -- pitches that break different directions to keep hitters honest.

Gray got a battle from the first batter, Giants shortstop Brett Wisley, but his seventh pitch of the at bat was a four-seam fastball that led to a strikeout looking. Next, Gray whiffed Heliot Ramos with a sweeper -- the first of five strikeouts on the day on a pitch that was statistically the most effective in all of baseball in 2023.

Gray started off 16 of 22 hitters with first-pitch strikes, punched out eight and he went to three-ball counts just three times -- one of them being the moment against Slater. He retired all three by attacking them with his best stuff.

It’s a mindset that he adapted earlier in June, following a two-game losing streak where he was plagued by walks and trying to be too fine with his pitches. As he showed again on Sunday, he can be almost unhittable when he’s getting ahead early in counts and using his sweeper as a put-away pitch.

“There’s definitely a mindset shift, but also what I’m trying to do with the baseball is a shift as well,” said Gray. “I’m not trying to manipulate it as much with certain things. I know that I’m at my best when I go in with that attacking mindset. So, I’m just going to continue down this road and not let it get away from me this time.”

The last time Gray worked that deep into a game with elite stuff was on Opening Day in 2015 when he took a no-hitter into the eighth before the bid was broken up. His manager that day, Bob Melvin, was in the Giants’ dugout.

"It’s one of them,” said Melvin, when asked if that’s the best he’s seen Gray pitch. “He’s gotten better. He had it all working."

After retiring the first 20 Giants batters, Patrick Bailey homered off Gray with two outs in the seventh off a low-and-in cutter he felt he executed perfectly. He said he could live with losing the perfect game because he went down attacking -- something he promised to do three starts ago.

“If you’re not a good self-evaluator and an open and honest book, you can make excuses and say, ‘Why me?’ or why am I getting so unlucky?” Gray asked. “If you don’t take an honest assessment, you’re not going to get to the bottom of it. It starts there and then translating it onto the field.”