'He’s the right guy': Nats award Gray with 1st Opening Day start

March 17th, 2024

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Right-hander thought he was walking into an ordinary pitcher’s meeting when manager Dave Martinez and pitching coach Jim Hickey asked to speak with him this week.

Instead, Gray was informed he was named the Nationals' Opening Day starter for the 2024 season on March 28 in Cincinnati.

“A really cool feeling,” Gray said Sunday morning after Martinez announced the honor. “When you get to the big leagues, you don't really think about that. But it was really cool to hear that from him [Martinez] and just to be able to enjoy the moment with my family and everyone that is finding out now.”

Gray, 26, is the first Nats Opening Day starter not named Patrick Corbin (2022-23), Max Scherzer (2015-16, ‘18-21) or Stephen Strasburg (2012-14, ‘17) since Liván Hernández in 2011. Corbin will start the second game of the season. The remainder of the rotation will be named in the coming days.

“A big moment for him last year was being in the All-Star Game. He got to pitch an inning and did really well,” Martinez said before the Nationals’ 9-8 win over the Mets at CACTI Park of the Palm Beaches. “So here’s the next step in his career, and I think he’s the right guy.”

Gray was selected by the Reds in the second round of the 2018 Draft. Months later, he was traded to the Dodgers and then acquired by the Nats at the 2021 Trade Deadline to join their starting rotation in the Scherzer-Trea Turner deal. It has been a whirlwind six years to reach this accomplishment.

“‘Progress’ is probably the first word that comes to mind, because of how I've progressed through the league in the short amount of time I've been a Major Leaguer,” Gray said. “I just remember my first big league camp being with the Dodgers and getting cut and thinking how that feeling was, and to say you’re going to be our first arm out of Spring Training going into the season is really cool and really surreal.”

Gray made a career-high 30 starts last year in his first All-Star season. He went 8-13 with a 3.91 ERA across 159 innings. His offseason checklist included working on repeating his mechanics and fastball command.

“He’s matured so much since the first day I saw him,” Martinez said. “Even through the struggles of last year, he’s a lot different. Coming into camp, he’s been so much different as far as growth-wise. Understanding who he is, working on things he needs to work on, not trying to reinvent the wheel. … I’m proud of him. We asked him to do some things over the winter, and he’s done that. He’s come to camp in great shape and ready to go.”

Gray was able to give a heads up to his immediate family, his girlfriend’s family and a close friend so they could book travel to Great American Ball Park. Shortly after the official announcement was made on Sunday, his phone was blowing up with congratulatory messages and those interested in making the trip to see the feat in person, too. It’s no surprise a huge smile hasn’t left Gray’s face.

“Getting named to an All-Star Game was something I can say, again, I never expected,” he said. “But then to get the Opening Day nod, it shows the trust and the level of support I have from Davey, the front office and everyone that I’ve made progress from where I was in 2021 as a rookie to here we are in 2024.

“I’m really just looking forward to continuing to progress. I think last year, I proved to myself that, above all, that I can really do this at a level that I can really help the team win games, not distract any of the things out there. [I am] looking forward to just what this year brings and seeing what we can do as a team.”