Josiah Gray worked with Tres Barrera, Riley Adams, and Keibert Ruiz in his first nine starts as a member of the Washington Nationals’ rotation, but after his ninth, skipper Davey Martinez said he wanted to get the 23-year-old starter out there at least once with veteran Alex Avila, who returned from a long, 52-game IL stint on September 1st, and announced he would be retiring last weekend, at the end of his 13th big league campaign.
“I think I want to see Alex catch Jo-Jo once, and see what that’s like,” Martinez said as he discussed having Avila catch a few of Patrick Corbin’s starts, hoping a familiar catcher’s presence might have a positive effect on the struggling southpaw.
“Jo-Jo, I thought he did a better job yesterday,” Martinez added after something of a bounce back outing for Gray versus the Colorado Rockies in which he gave up three hits, four walks, and five earned runs in 5 1⁄3 IP. “We talked about him not missing as much arm-side. The big thing yesterday we talked a lot about is finishing hitters when he’s 0-2, not letting them get back in the count, that’s something we want to continue to talk to him about and work on, but I thought he was a lot better yesterday.”
Martinez followed through on his plan and paired Gray and Avila together for the finale with the Miami Marlins in loanDepot park last night.
Josiah Gray, Filthy 85mph Back Foot Breaking Ball...and Sword. ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/tP9jarBDCZ— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 23, 2021
“I’m curious to see how it all plays out,” the fourth-year skipper told reporters in his pregame Zoom call with reporters. “Like I said, our two young catchers are doing really well. Keibert, he’s actually improved quite a bit. ... He’s been working with [bullpen and catching coach] Henry [Blanco] every single day.
“In-game, he’s been with Henry, Henry goes down and talks about different things, so the veteran presence of Alex with a young pitcher might have Jo-Jo see things differently.
“So I’m looking forward to watching him work today, and like I said, he’s worked on some things, and hopefully he continues to get better.”
The manager said he hoped Avila’s calming influence would have a positive effect on Gray as well.
“I think it — maybe a little sense of relief, but when you get these young pitchers, they want to go out there and they go so much energy, and this is why Alex is good.
“If you’ve known Alex like I’ve known him, he’s a very low-energy guy, but understands what he needs to do.
“And he can calm anybody down, and that’s one of the things I love about him, he really — when things start speeding up on pitchers, he knows how to slow them down, he really does, and he sticks with them.
“The conversations in-between innings with the pitchers is unbelievable. When you listen to him talk about how he wants to attack hitters, and when he wants to do, and, ‘Hey, we went this way the at-bat before, I want to do this this at-bat, and what are your thoughts?’
“They have these unbelievable conversations. I’m looking forward just to hearing those conversations today with him and Josiah.”
Neither Martinez or Gray talked about those dugout talks after last night’s game, but both the manager and starter were thrilled with the results.
Josiah Gray’s Line: 6.0 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 8 Ks, 100 P, 71 S, 3/3 GO/FO.
Gray worked around a leadoff single and a two-out walk in a 21-pitch first inning, then he retired seven-straight Marlins’ hitters as the Nationals went up 4-0 with runs in the top of the second, third, and fourth innings (all on home runs).
Gray retired nine in-a-row retired with the first two outs of the home-half of the fourth, but Lewis Brinson doubled with two down and scored on an RBI single to left by Lewin Díaz to get the Fish on the board, down 4-1 after four.
Bryan De La Cruz tripled on a one-out liner to right field in the bottom of the sixth, that Juan Soto ran and reached for but didn’t catch, and De La Cruz raced around to third base as the right fielder ran it down, and an RBI single by Jesús Sánchez in the next at-bat made it a 4-2 game in the Nationals’ favor. Lewis Brinson reached first on a hard-hit grounder to third that Carter Kieboom fielded, but bobbled, putting two on with one out, but Gray got Lewin Díaz swinging with a 96 MPH 0-2 fastball for out No. 2, then popped Joe Panik for out No. 3, of a 29-pitch frame which left him at 100 pitches even on the night.
Gray earned the win, his first in the majors, when the Nationals went on to a 7-5 win.
“He attacked the strike zone for the most part,” Martinez said of Gray’s outing overall.
“Everything was down, he worked down tonight, which was awesome. He elevated fastballs by design, and he threw them well.
“There wasn’t any — not a whole lot of non-competitive pitches. He went after guys all night long tonight, which was awesome. For me, we had a growing moment in the sixth inning, I wanted him to get through that inning, and he did fantastic.”
Josiah Gray, Nasty 86mph Slider...and Sword. ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/pdDeFlAQoo— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 22, 2021
And Avila’s impact on how things went for the starter?
“Avila kept him under control,” Martinez said, “and they worked down, they worked down, and I talked to Alex a little bit during the game, and he said [Gray’s] fastball is really live and it’s got the last little bit of giddy-up at the end, so he wanted him to get him throw the ball down, everything down, it makes his curveball that much better, it makes his slider that much better, and his changeup. So he had a great game plan with him, they executed pitches and he got us through six innings.”
“Yeah, that was definitely an important part of tonight,” Gray said, responding indirectly to his manager’s talk of the starter and catcher working down in the zone all night.
“Also just controlling the strike zone better, getting in better counts, getting in pitcher-friendly counts, and executing my pitches, but that was definitely a key component of tonight.”
And working with Avila for the first time?
“It was good,” Gray told reporters. “We were on the same page from pitch one to the end of the outing. I shook him off maybe twice, and he had a really good feel for what their hitters were doing and the way I was throwing the ball, and giving me certain cues throughout the outing to stay on the plate and things like that, but that was awesome. He’s done it for  years, and he’s seen so many arms, and that was great to get the first one with him behind the dish.”