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Washington Nationals’ 2022 Rotation: Josiah Gray on pounding the zone; Greg Maddux & more...

Josiah Gray is ready to contribute to the Nationals’ cause as part of the club’s rotation when the season begins later this week...

MLB: MAR 19 Spring Training - Mets at Nationals Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Five days before he faced the Houston Astros this past Sunday in Grapefruit League action, Josiah Gray got his work in throwing on a back field in West Palm Beach, Florida’s FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, allowing the big league club to run a parade of their relievers out to get their work in in the official game during this abbreviated run-up to 2022’s regular season.

Gray, 24, gave up a total of six hits (three home runs) and six runs, five earned, in his initial outings this spring, as he builds up for his first full season with the organization following last July 30th’s trade which brought him and three other prospects (catcher Keibert Ruiz, pitcher Gerardo Carrillo, and outfielder Donovan Casey) over from LA in return for a rental Max Scherzer and a year-plus of Trea Turner.

In spite of the high-profile nature of that trade, Gray told veteran Washington Post writer Barry Svrluga he didn’t feel pressure to justify the club’s decision to part with the likes of Scherzer and Turner in the deal:

“I don’t think of it as pressure,” Gray said. “But I would say it always comes with the added: ‘Hey, here’s Keibert Ruiz. Here’s Josiah Gray. They were traded for so-and-so.’ It’s always added into the conversation — which is a good thing. It’s a testament to how the organization evaluated us and traded us for some top-tier talent, $300 million players. You definitely take some pride in it. You say, ‘Okay, now we’re here to start it up new and kind of be that backbone for the organization now.’”

Gray, who debuted in the majors with the Dodgers last summer before the trade, joined the major league club in D.C. shortly after the deal, and the right-hander finished the year in the Nats’ rotation, putting up a 5.31 ERA, a 5.71 FIP, 28 walks (4.02 BB/9), 63 Ks (9.05 K/9), and a .238/.322/.489 line against in 12 starts and 62 2⁄3 IP.

In the first two starts in Grapefruit League action this year, the right-hander walked no one, while striking out seven batters in 5 IP.

Gray got off to a good start in his third appearance of the spring in Sunday’s outing as well, retiring seven of the first eight batters he went up against, striking out four, and facing the minimum through 2 23 innings on the mound against the Houston Astros, but Jeremy Peña hit a 2-out home run off the Nationals’ starter (the first of two he allowed in the outing, both hit by Peña, which were the 4th and 5th he’s surrendered in 9 23 IP this spring (4.66 HR/9), after he gave up 19 in 70 23 IP (2.42 HR/9) in the majors between the Dodgers and Nationals in 2021).

Things got difficult after the first of two homers he allowed on the day, however, with two singles around a stolen base and hit-by-pitch later in the third leading to another run, and then after he issued his first walk of the spring to the first batter in the fourth inning, Gray gave up a two-out single and three-run homer (by Peña) which put the Astros up 5-0.

Gray came back out for the fifth, and retired two batters before he was done for the day.

He talked after what ended up a 9-6 win for the Nationals, who rallied after their starter left the game, about being happy with his ability to throw strikes and pound the zone, and how that will, of course, lead to home runs at times since he’s a fly ball pitcher (53.7% FB% in ‘21, which was the highest FB% among NL starters with at least 60 IP last season, slightly ahead of a second-place Max Scherzer’s 48.3% FB%).

Coming out of his final competitive tune-up before his first regular season start of 2022, the young pitcher said he felt good about where he’s at right now.

“I just feel more in control of my body,” Gray explained, “... more in control of my stuff, and having three major league outings, I had one walk.

“There’s so much more consistency in the strike zone.

“Obviously being aggressive in the strike zone — it’s going to lead to hits, it’s going to lead to home runs, being a fly ball pitcher, but I’m just really excited with the way I’m throwing strikes, the way I’m controlling at-bats, and I think that’s only going to get better. As the season goes on, as we continue to get comfortable, things like that.”

Spring Training-New York Mets at Washington Nationals

While he’s clearly a lock for the Nationals’ big league rotation, barring any injuries, or any setbacks before the opening series, Gray wasn’t taking anything for granted when asked about going to the nation’s capital with the team.

“It would be awesome,” he said. “I think I put in the work in the offseason, put in some work here in the shortened spring, I’ve made some improvements, I would say, so that would be awesome, but the way the rotation works out isn’t up to me, so we’ll see what happens.”

His focus as Spring Training ends is on controlling what he can control and focusing on his execution of each pitch, especially when runners reach base.

“Greg Maddux talked about just execution with guys on base, so just focusing on that more is going to be really, really important,” Gray explained, “and I just wasn’t executing as much as I wanted to with guys on base or with two outs there [on Sunday], so a work in progress, but there were some positives for sure.”