Nats' skipper gives Gray a chance to grow

Martinez lets pitcher work out of a jam even with pitch count high

April 7th, 2023

DENVER – There was good news and there was bad news for the Nationals following their first road game of the 2023 season.

Under normal circumstances, you’d probably ask for the bad news before the good news. Rip the Band-Aid off, and all that. But the Nationals need all the good news they can get right now, so that will be offered first:

pitched well in a difficult environment Thursday afternoon at Coors Field, bouncing back from a rough season debut in which he gave up five runs over five innings against the Braves at Nationals Park on Friday. The 25-year-old right-hander threw six strong innings against the Rockies, yielding one run on eight hits while walking one and striking out six.

Now, for the bad news:

The Nationals didn’t score any runs in the hitter’s paradise they call Coors Field, leading to a 1-0 loss that dropped Washington to 1-6 on the young season. It marked the first time the club was shut out in that venue since Sept. 30, 2018.

Prior to the game, manager Dave Martinez addressed his club’s offensive struggles, emphasizing that his young hitters need to “relax, and not try to do too much with runners in scoring position.” He also described some positives.

“From what I’ve seen over the [first] six games, we’re not slugging, we’re not driving in runs we should, but we’re putting the ball in play,” he said. “We’re mixing in our walks, which is good for the young team we have. … So I think the hitting will come.”

It didn’t on Thursday. The lineup managed six hits, all singles. Washington’s hitters didn’t struggle with runners in scoring position, but that’s because they had only one at-bat in that situation.

There was some tough luck at play, too. In the first inning, belted a drive to left field that came inches from being a two-run homer but was reeled in with a leaping catch at the wall by Jurickson Profar. According to Statcast, Candelario’s drive would have been a home run in 20 Major League parks.

Then, in the fifth, a routine Ezequiel Tovar fly ball to right field turned into a double when lost the ball in the sun. Tovar later scored the only run of the game on a Kris Bryant single.

“You know, I told [] earlier that the sun was on me a little bit,” Thomas said. “And I called it, [though] I probably should’ve let him have the ball. I saw it the whole time until it got on me. … I told [Gray], ‘I’m sorry, I should’ve had that.' But that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

Gray certainly pitched well enough for his team to win. He seemed to be fighting his command in the first inning, though he said after the game that many of the 11 balls he threw in that opening frame were “targeted misses.” He used his slider to great effect, throwing 43 of them and inducing 11 swinging strikes. 

“I just located it a lot better today,” Gray said of the slider. “I was just not trying to get too fine with it, just trying to know that when I’m trying to get it to a spot, to just get it to that area, at least. … I put in a lot of work in the bullpen a few days ago. Just trusting it.”

The scoreboard result wasn’t what Gray or the Nationals wanted, but at this stage of the building process for Washington, the substance of the games will often be more important than the outcomes. On Thursday, Gray not only bounced back from a difficult first outing, but his manager pushed him further than he may have at times in the past.

Despite nearing the century mark on his pitch count and facing a first-and-third, one-out situation, Gray was left in the game to try and work out of the jam in the sixth inning. He did so, closing the book on his afternoon at 102 pitches. He has thrown more pitches in an outing only twice.

“I wanted to see him work through that,” Martinez said. “Those are his runs, so he deserved a chance to get those guys out. And he did a great job.”

By ending on a high note, Gray gave the Nats some good news to chase the bad.