Gray proves he's the ace Cards need in sterling debut

April 10th, 2024

ST. LOUIS -- Even though it had been 36 days since had pitched in an official game and he could have eased into his Cardinals debut next week following a Triple-A start, the veteran right-hander knew the spotlight’s glare and the intensity of facing a stacked lineup like the Phillies would bring out the best in him on Tuesday night.

As such, the 34-year-old Gray lobbied and later convinced the Cardinals coaching staff and medical team that he was ready for his injury-delayed debut. Then, he quickly shook any sort of rust that might have typically come with such a long layoff and showed the Cardinals what kind of dominant stopper he can be for them in the season ahead.

His Cardinals debut delayed by a hamstring injury that wrecked his Spring Training, Gray put all that behind him on Tuesday by allowing just five singles and striking out five over five scoreless innings of a 3-0 win over the Phillies at Busch Stadium.

“It was fun, and I felt at home, to be honest with you,” said Gray, who struck out Philadelphia stars Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto twice each and induced two inning-ending double plays. “I felt more calm, cool, collected and confident than I have in any of the rehab outings, [simulated games] or [live BPs]. I just felt at home, so it was good, and it was fun.”

Gray, the American League Cy Young Award runner-up in 2023, needed just one outing to show why the Cardinals feverishly pursued him over the offseason and ultimately signed him to a three-year, $75 million free-agent contract. The will with which he pitches, the confidence that he oozes out of each pore and the conviction behind his six-pitch arsenal can have a contagious effect on the Cardinals, manager Oliver Marmol said again on Tuesday.

“What he did today was pretty incredible, and there’s a lot to be excited about with us having him healthy again,” Marmol raved, pointing to Gray’s sharpness -- despite him not pitching in an official game since March 4, when he strained his right hamstring in a Spring Training loss. “He hasn’t pitched in front of a crowd in a while, and for him to control his emotions and not try to do too much, he was under control the whole time. That was pretty dominant, and it was a lot of fun to watch.”

Not only did Gray not show any ill-effects of the hamstring injury that put a damper on his first Spring Training with the Cardinals, but there also was no apparent consequence from the long layoff. Mixing his six pitches masterfully, Gray got swings on 32 of 64 pitches and six whiffs. Gray’s sweeper -- one he considers a slider -- and the pitch that limited hitters to a .097 average in 2023, was used to register his final two strikeouts before departing after five frames.

The only real drama for Gray came in the top of the fifth inning after Nick Castellanos and Brandon Marsh reached on singles. Knowing that Gray was on a 65-pitch limit as he works to rebuild his arm strength, Marmol came to the mound to discuss Gray’s plan of attack to Phillies’ No. 9 hitter Johan Rojas. On his 64th and final pitch of the game, Gray used a 94.2 mph sinker to get Rojas to ground into a 6-4-3 double play.

“I was just gripping my best sinker and letting it rip as hard as I could to try and get it to his hands and get soft contact on the infield and let our defense play,” said Gray, who wore a red No. 45 hat postgame as a tribute to legendary Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson. “That they did, turning two incredible double plays and [third baseman] Nolan [Arenado] made an incredible barehanded play on the bunt. Those are the plays that allowed me to throw five innings.”

Knowing that the Cardinals brought him in to stabilize a staff that badly lagged last season, Gray had feelings of frustration and isolation last week when the team opened on the West Coast and he remained in St. Louis to continue his rehab. His desire to perform on Tuesday could have led to some of the “tension” he said he felt early in the day. But, ultimately, he allowed a calm to wash over him as he looked every bit the ace that the Cards needed.

“I had a little bit of tension when I got on the field and started to stretch, but we talked through it and once I put a ball in my hand, I was like, ‘OK, and [those nerves] went away,’” he said. “Then, it’s just about making one pitch after another.”