Young battery finds footing in loss to Rox

Gray shows improvement in 9th start for Nationals, striking out 5 in 5 1/3

September 18th, 2021

WASHINGTON -- “We definitely need to have a lot of patience,” said manager Dave Martinez when asked about the battery of and Keibert Ruiz. Before the first pitch on Friday, the rookies had worked just nine innings together over two starts with the Nationals.

In the 9-8 loss to the Rockies in the series opener at Nationals Park, the pair showed signs of improvement.

“We'll talk to him tomorrow and tell him, ‘when your tempo was good, you were in the zone and throwing strikes and getting hitters out early. He had a lot of opportunities to put hitters away as well. He fell behind 3-2 and that’s something we need to work on as well.”

Martinez and Gray both felt better about the rookie starter’s outing, noticing improvements from his last two starts. The right-hander liked the aggressive game plan he and his batterymate came up with, and their communication throughout the game.

“Honestly, tonight couldn't have been any more perfect,” said Gray. “Obviously the rough patch in the first inning, but innings two through six, we were on the same page. We were attacking guys. We were going right at them.”

After allowing back-to-back walks to open the contest, it looked like Gray didn’t have his best stuff in his 10th start of the season. After a 21-pitch inning, the Nationals were in a 2-0 hole.

“I was breathing a lot better on the mound,” said Gray, comparing this start to his previous three tough outings. “I was taking a lot of methodical deep breaths and just putting my mind at ease, a lot of positive self-talk. Especially after the first inning, just saying to myself, ‘Man, you got this, this is all they get in terms of the two runs.’”

The righty started leaning on his slider and curveball more, a game plan he crafted with both pitching coach Jim Hickey and Ruiz, who went 3-for-5 with an RBI. He cut his four-seam fastball usage in half between the first (52.4 percent) and fourth innings (21.1 percent), using a breaking ball to be more aggressive.

“We want him to attack with his fastball and get in that zone [early on],” said Martinez. “It's something that we were working on with him. He threw the ball a lot better. You didn't see a whole lot of arm-side misses like we have in the past two outings. So that was an improvement.”

Starting in 2019, Ruiz and Gray played in the Dodgers’ Minor League system, working their way up from Double to Triple-A, before both being dealt to Washington at the Trade Deadline in July. The two are getting acquainted with working together within Washington’s system and at the Major League level, something that Martinez stressed takes more than one or two games.

“I thought they worked very well together, very well,” said Martinez. “It's going to be a learning process but [Gray] threw the ball a lot better today. If he can continue to build off of that, we're going to be in good shape.”

With the loss, the Nationals are officially eliminated from playoff contention, but the skipper isn’t ready to wave a white flag. He still wants to win games and allow his players the best opportunity to improve and compete. Gray and Ruiz are expected to be key pieces for the Nationals in 2022.