After dominant year, Gray set for 'fun ride' in October

September 28th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- Make it two Twins starters who can lay claim to a “best since Johan Santana” stat this season.

completed his regular season with a shortened start in Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the A’s at Target Field to ramp him down ahead of his upcoming Game 2 start in the American League Wild Card Series. It capped off a campaign in which he posted a 2.79 ERA, lowest in a full season by a qualified Twins pitcher since Johan Santana’s second Cy Young season (2.77) in 2006.

Coupled with Pablo López’s 234 strikeouts, the most by a Twins pitcher since Santana in 2007, this is about as good of a 1-2 punch as the Twins could have hoped for entering the postseason, with López now officially lined up for Game 1 and Gray set for Game 2.

And now, the timings of those next outings are certain, with the Twins’ loss to Oakland formally locking Minnesota into the No. 3 seed in the AL’s playoff bracket as the host of a Wild Card Series from Oct. 3-5 at Target Field.

“Pitching in the postseason is something that I've talked about,” Gray said. “At this point in my career, that's kind of the only thing that really pushes me. Individual accolades are nice if and when you receive some. But the only thing that really drives me at this point in my career is winning a World Series. We have an opportunity in front of us to do that.”

The individual accolades could soon come, too.

As Gray nears free agency for the first time in his career, his time with the Twins will continue into October, and he had no small role to play in that. His ERA is second-best among qualified AL pitchers, behind only presumed AL Cy Young front-runner Gerrit Cole of the Yankees.

Gray is bound for a top-three finish in WAR among AL pitchers, per FanGraphs, and by that metric (5.2 WAR), it’s the best season by a Twins pitcher since Phil Hughes put up 6.3 WAR in 2014. Much of his success came on the back of an astounding eight homers allowed in 184 innings, the fewest in Twins history by a qualified pitcher in a non-shortened season.

It’s everything Gray always knew he would be if he could only find a way to stay healthy and put up this kind of innings total, his highest since he finished third in AL Cy Young voting as a youngster with the A’s in 2015. 

“I never worry about numbers,” Gray said. “I never worry about performance-based stuff, because I truly believe if I stay on the field, numbers will be there. At the end of the day, numbers will be there. I have that much confidence in my ability.”

So, last offseason, sick of not being healthy and on the field for a full campaign, Gray came up with a plan and started putting in the work on his body as soon as the ‘22 season ended, eventually growing to enjoy the grind as he built up for his walk year.

The end result: Gray stayed healthy for the full ‘23 campaign, avoiding the IL for the first time since ‘19, when he similarly posted a 2.87 ERA and earned NL Cy Young votes while with the Reds.

The Twins have built a strong enough rotation around Gray and López to the point that, following Kenta Maeda’s 3 1/3 strong innings of relief on Thursday, it still remains unclear which of the Twins’ three other playoff-caliber starters could follow them in the Wild Card Series and beyond.

But toward the head of that pack, all that work has gone to Gray to this point, stronger than ever when his team needs him most. He has a 2.02 ERA, 68 strikeouts and 11 walks in 11 starts since the beginning of August. Next time out, he’ll either be pitching to clinch the Twins’ first playoff series win since 2002 -- or to keep the team’s season alive.

He’s been waiting for this.

“Having been around this game for a little bit now, understanding that you don't always get this opportunity, make the most of the opportunities that you get,” Gray said. “That's the only goal for me, is to win a World Series. Like I said, we have it in front of us. It's going to be a fun ride.”