'It was huge': Escape acts highlight Gray's clutch start

July 1st, 2023

PHILADELPHIA -- Going back to last season, one area of focus the Nationals have been preaching with is the way he approaches high-leverage situations.

Well, it's tough to imagine a higher-leverage spot than the one Gray faced in the sixth inning of Friday night's series opener against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

Clinging to a one-run lead, Gray found himself with runners on the corners and nobody out -- and two-time MVP Bryce Harper stepping into the box. Gray not only forced Harper to pop out in foul territory, but he then got J.T. Realmuto to pop out on the first pitch and struck out Bryson Stott to escape the jam unscathed.

With the Nationals squandering a few chances of their own, Gray’s Houdini act proved to be the pivotal moment in Washington’s 2-1 victory.

“It was huge,” said Gray, who let out a yell as he hopped off the mound. “I don’t show much emotion, but I do in big spots like that -- so I definitely showed some emotion there.”

As a rookie in 2021, Gray allowed opposing hitters to hit .345 with a 1.027 OPS in high-leverage situations. Last year, he served up five homers in those spots. Entering Friday, opponents were just 7-for-46 (.152) with one home run and a .480 OPS in high-leverage moments this season.

And while the sixth inning was obviously the biggest test, it wasn't the only time Gray stepped up against Philadelphia. After allowing a second-inning RBI single to Alec Bohm, Gray promptly picked him off to escape the jam. Two innings later, Gray struck out Bohm with two on and two out on a perfectly placed sinker on the outside corner.

That was one of eight strikeouts for Gray, who allowed just one run off six hits (all singles) and one walk. He threw 70 of his 99 pitches for strikes.

“That’s something we talked about that he’s learned from last year to this year, just staying in the moment,” manager Dave Martinez said. “Don’t get all riled up if something doesn’t happen right. Just focus on the next pitch, and he’s doing that so well this year.”

Of course, leverage wasn't Gray's only issue through one and a half seasons in D.C. He allowed an MLB-high 38 home runs last season. He also issued a National League-high 66 walks.

And while the walks are still an issue (his walk rate is actually up from 10.2% last season to 10.5% in '23), Gray has cut down drastically on the home runs. He's allowed just 12 in 95 1/3 innings and his 2.9% home run rate is less than half of what it was last season (5.9%).

Friday marked the 10th time in 17 starts this season that Gray has not allowed a home run. He had just five homerless outings all of last season (28 starts).

The biggest culprit for Gray's inability to keep the ball in the yard last year was his four-seam fastball. That pitch was responsible for 24 of his 38 homers -- he gave up no more than six with any of his other pitches. Gray’s four-seamer had a run value of +22, according to Statcast, making it the fourth-worst offering by any pitcher in the Majors last season.

But Gray has added a cutter to his arsenal that has not only become an effective pitch itself, but it's also helped keep hitters from jumping his fastball. Last season, opponents had a .738 slugging percentage against Gray’s four-seamer -- the worst among 229 pitchers with at least 100 plate appearances.

This year? Opposing hitters are slugging only .386 against his four-seamer.

“He has to use his fastball,” Martinez said. “He can’t just throw slider after slider, cutters, sweepers -- he’s got to utilize his fastball. And tonight was a great example of him doing that. Used all his pitches and late in the game, when he needed to use his fastball, he pumped it in there.

“It was awesome.”

Gray has made strides in leverage spots. The fastball is much improved. The ball is staying in the park.

With a little improved pitch efficiency, just how good can Gray be for the Nationals?

“Right now, he’s in a good spot,” Martinez said. “But he’s going to get better. He’s really going to get better.”