'It is what it is': Gray brushes off rough Opening Day

March 29th, 2024

CINCINNATI -- felt excited. He also felt the weight of his role. The 26-year-old right-hander did not view his first Opening Day start lightly, and he understood the significance of taking the mound in the Nationals’ first regular-season contest of 2024.

“[My biggest takeaway is] getting the responsibility of being able to go out there and try to put the team in a good position from Game 1,” Gray said following the Nationals' 8-2 loss to the Reds at Great American Ball Park. “I failed to do that today, but I think we all know how we’re going to come back in two days and bounce back … It definitely means a lot, and I definitely don’t take it for granted.”

In Nationals history (since 2005), Gray is the eighth pitcher to start Opening Day. He joined Patrick Corbin (2022-23) Max Scherzer (2015-16, ‘18-21), Stephen Strasburg (2012-14, ‘17), Livan Hernandez (2005-06, ‘11), John Lannan (2009-10), Odalis Perez (2008) and John Patterson (2007).

Gray tossed four innings against his former organization, which selected him in the second round of the 2018 Draft. He allowed seven runs on eight hits, including a pair of homers to Nick Martini, while issuing two walks and striking out six. He threw 52 of his 80 pitches for strikes.

“Overall, look, it was his first Opening Day [start],” said manager Dave Martinez. “We get him settled down, walked two guys, which isn’t bad … We’ve got to put this one behind us and come back Saturday.”

Gray recorded his first strikeout in the third at-bat of the day. He dealt a duo of fastballs to Christian Encarnacion-Strand before catching him swinging at a 93.3 mph four-seamer.

But Gray wasn’t as effective in the second inning, when he faced eight batters and allowed three runs on an RBI single and two-run home run.

In a seven-batter third inning, a pair of doubles to Jake Fraley and Spencer Steer and a walk to Elly De La Cruz were followed up with another Martini dinger. The Nationals’ deficit ballooned to 7-0 before Gray retired the side in the fourth while southpaw Robert Garcia warmed up in the bullpen.

“It’s easy to look at those at-bats [to Martini] and the damage that was done,” Gray said. “But in all honesty, every pitch that Keibert [Ruiz] called, I felt confident in and threw it in the zones that we wanted to throw it in. They did some damage with some other batters. It’s easy to look at the damage, and you kind of chalk it up as, 'It is what it is.' He got to the pitches, and I’ve just got to be better next time.”

Gray, who often tinkers on the mound, delivered seven pitches: fastball (24 pitches), cutter (24), curveball (16), sweeper (nine), changeup (three), slider (three) and sinker (one). Martinez would like to see him throw more fastballs (which he used more in the first and fourth innings) and increase his changeup usage against lefties.

“One bad pitch in both [innings], it really cost him,” Martinez said. “But he’s got to attack. He’s got to stay in attack mode. He’s got good stuff. I’m not down on him by any means. It’s just one day.”

In the long run, Thursday will stand out to Gray for the honor of being named Opening Day starter -- an accolade that will drive him the rest of the season.

“You always reflect on the bad starts; that’s just how we are wired as baseball players,” Gray said. “But I think for me, I’ll try to take the positives out of today. Obviously you have to come back to work here in two days and really dig deep into sequencing and location on some things and try to give the team a better chance to win on my next start. I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but to say it’ll be in and out of my mind, that’s not the truth. … It’s about coming back on the next day and getting back to work. I know I can do it -- I’ve had bad starts before and have been able to rebound.”