Gray's latest gem moves him atop ERA leaderboard

April 25th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- Perhaps other pitchers don’t get the opportunity that did in the seventh inning, when he issued a two-out walk with his pitch count over 100. With a left-handed hitter coming up, manager Rocco Baldelli didn’t so much as take a step out of the first-base dugout.

Five pitches later, Gray was yelling into the chilly Minnesota air as he marched triumphantly off the mound.

Behold the Majors’ qualified ERA leader, the steady veteran who has found a way to put up zeroes this season with or without his best stuff. It was one of those games where everything was working as Gray cut through the Yankees’ lineup with ease all night at Target Field, striking out eight over seven scoreless innings to lead the Twins to a 6-1 victory on Monday.

“I just want to continue to get better,” Gray said. “I just want to continue to get better every day and to just continue to work on my craft. It’s really fun. I just enjoy showing up and working and getting to the next start.”

crushed a 432-foot solo blast to the upper deck in right-center in another strong performance from a former Yankee, while continued his productive return to the lineup with two hits and three RBIs as the Twins eclipsed five runs for just the second time in their last 10 games.

Not that Gray needed it.

The right-hander’s 107 pitches were his most since Aug. 14, 2020, in his penultimate season with the Reds before he was traded to Minnesota. Only one Yankees hitter made it beyond first base against Gray -- Aaron Judge, on a fourth-inning double. Only two balls made it out of the infield at all; everything else was a groundout, save for one infield single and one infield pop fly.

Gray has still allowed only two earned runs in 29 innings this season, good for an 0.62 ERA that pushed him ahead of Shohei Ohtani for the MLB lead. In franchise history, only Walter Johnson of the 1913 Washington Senators and Eddie Matteson of the ‘18 Senators have recorded a lower ERA through their first five appearances of a season (minimum 20 innings).

“Whatever else happens or what has happened or whatever, it’s all kind of irrelevant,” Gray said. “Keep your blinders on and continue to push forward, continue to get better. There’s always room for improvement.”

Indeed, despite all his statistical success this season, Gray has bemoaned the fact that he has had to pitch without his best stuff more often than he would have liked, including his season debut against the Royals on April 1 and his last outing against the Red Sox on April 18.

That makes it all the more spectacular when he does have everything working.

“After my last start, we had to really look at ourselves in the mirror and figure out what we’re going to do here,” Gray said. “I came in with a different plan. In the bullpen, we worked through a few extra things that we did incorporate tonight. Throwing six different pitches, it is a little new for me. The pitches are new to me, so it’s like, ‘How do you get your work in with all of it?’”

The six-pitch arsenal gives Gray many plans of attack, even when one or two of the offerings aren’t working. But on Monday, he had all of them, most heavily featuring the cutter and curveball, and recorded multiple strikeouts with four pitches -- the cutter, curve, sinker and slider.

“He’s got good feel for the cutter,” Judge said. “Back when we had him, he had great feel for his slider and curveball and sinker combo, using both sides of the plate. But now he mixes that cutter in there to keep you honest.”

Last season, Gray would have loved to pitch deeper into more games, but he acknowledged that he needed to earn the opportunities. Amid the best month of his pitching life, this version of Gray certainly has -- and he relished the chance to finish off that seventh inning.

“It was huge,” Gray said. “I didn’t know if I was going to get that opportunity or not. … For Rocco to let me stay and continue to fight… grateful for that opportunity for sure, and then to go out and execute it, that was very nice.”