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Washington Nationals news & notes: Josiah Gray vs ATL; Luis Garcia in two-spot; Joey Meneses talk + more...

Notes and quotes from Davey Martinez and the second game of the 2023 campaign...

Gray Day:

Josiah Gray finished up the spring with a 0.55 ERA in five starts and 16 13 innings pitched, over which he held opposing hitters to a .210 AVG, walking two, and striking out 14 in an impressive stretch by the 25-year-old starter.

For Gray, who finished the 2022 season, his first full run in the big leagues, with a 5.02 ERA, a 5.86 FIP, an NL-leading 66 walks (4.00 BB/9), 154 Ks (9.32 K/9), a major league-leading 38 HRs allowed, and a .239/.324/.489 line against in 28 starts and 148 2⁄3 innings on the mound, the ability to limit the walks this spring stood out (though he did not give up a Grapefruit League home run either).

Walks,” Gray said, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman.

“I think walks are the biggest one. If I can keep those down, that puts me in a really good position early on. … And then we all know the home run ball. Just being able to limit that is obviously going to take away the biggest negative play for a pitcher. So those two are big.”

“He’s pounding the strike zone, has a good mix of pitches, keeping guys off balance. He’s done really well this spring,” manager Davey Martinez told reporters after Gray’s final spring start.

“It’s a lot of fun to have success here,” Gray added, “… but I’m hoping and I’m striving to have success in the season, because I think it is attainable. It’s just a matter of going at it each day and taking care of what I can take care of.”

Gray’s second full season in the majors began with back-to-back home runs with both Ronald Acuña, Jr. and Matt Olson hitting consecutive shots off the Nats’ starter to put Atlanta up 2-0 before an out was recorded on Saturday afternoon.

Acuña hit an 0-2 slider up in the zone inside out to left field on a line for the leadoff blast, 1-0, then Olson connected on a 2-0 fastball over middle and hit it out to right field for a 406-foot shot which made it a 2-0 game early early.

Two more scored in the third, as two singles and a walk/wild pitch with a runner on third base added to the Braves’ lead, 3-0, and an RBI single by Michael Harris II made it 4-0.

Gray’s 29-pitch third inning left him with 57 pitches overall after three, and he gave up his third home run of the game/season on a 2-0 cutter low and in to Marcell Ozuna with one out in the Braves’ half of the fourth, 5-0, on the way to a 7-1 win for the Braves.

Gray went breaking ball-heavy in the outing, throwing 31% curveballs, 25% sliders, 20% cutters, 16% four-seamers, and 8% sinkers.

“He made a few mistakes,” Martinez said after the second straight loss to Atlanta to start the season. “Got ahead of the first — 5 out of 8 hitters he was ahead — he just couldn’t finish. The cutter wasn’t what it was in Spring Training, but you know what, I told him, ‘It was your first outing.’ He battled back, you know, he kept us in the game, gave us five innings, so I told him, I said, ‘Hey, when you work ahead you’ve got to finish. You made a few mistakes, they capitalized, so you’ve got five days to come back out and do it again.”

The cutter, something Gray worked in more often this spring, just wasn’t there early in the outing.

“It was kind of flat today,” Martinez explained. “He just couldn’t get it up in like he was doing all spring. When that happens we’ve got to understand — something I talked to Keibert [Ruiz] about, ‘Hey, you got to change it up. You can’t keep letting him do the same thing over and over, right? Maybe the fastball was better today, the slider was a little bit better today. So like I’ve said, it’s being young and learning what works and what’s not working.”

“As much as spring training is to get your work in, you know you’re not fighting for first place there,” Gray said after the game, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman.

“At-bats are more competitive. You have to be that much finer. I probably got away with pitches in Spring Training I might not get away with now.”

Gray did start working the cutter in more as the outing went along and he got a better feel for it.

“It got better,” Martinez said. “At first it didn’t. He can’t run away from his fastball neither. It’s something we talked about in Spring Training. ‘Your stuff is good, and if your slider is going to be really good, you’ve got to utilize your fastball as well.’”

Bullpen Action:

Gray went five innings total, on 87 pitches, giving up seven hits (three HRs), two walks, and five earned runs, with Atlanta up 5-0 when lefty Anthony Banda took over on the mound in the sixth.

Thaddeus Ward gave up a two-run blast by Matt Olson in the top of the seventh, with Olson’s 2nd of the season (and game) putting the Braves up 7-0 on the Nationals.

Ward returned to the mound in the eighth and retired the Braves in order in a nice bounce-back frame, and Hobie Harris finished it off in the top of the ninth before Keibert Ruiz hit a blast to right in the bottom of the ninth to avoid a shutout loss.

2-Spot Luis:

Luis García led off for Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez eight times last season, going 9 for 33 in those games (.273/.324/.303). Martinez put the 22-year-old infielder in the leadoff spot once again in the second game of the 2023 campaign on Saturday, and he talked in his pregame press conference about the thinking in having the left-handed hitter up top against Atlanta’s hard-throwing, fastball-heavy starter Spenser Strider (who threw his 97-98 MPH heater for a total of 78.4% of his pitches in limited time in the majors in 2021; .200 BAA, and 67.0 % in ‘22; .201 BAA).

“Today it was about the matchup more than anything,” Martinez explained when asked about having García lead off.

“I know Strider, he’s got a really good, electric fastball. We like Luis against fastballs against right-handers, so we’ll put him up there and then we’ll see. I hope he can do well up there and this is something we can do regularly with guys like that. So we’ll see what happens.”

According to Baseball Savant, García hit .351 on fastballs last season, with 14 doubles, two triples, and six home runs off heaters.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Martinez said he wanted his leadoff hitter ready for fastballs when he gets them, and didn’t really want to see him change much up in terms of approach just because he was leading off.

“For me, with Luis, we want him to attack,” the manager said. “Stay on the fastball, but get the ball in the zone. He’s really good when the ball’s been in the zone. And like I said, he really worked on [not] chasing this spring. That’s going to be [Hitting Coach Darnell [Cole] and Six’s [Assistant Hitting Coach Pat Roessler’s] whole message today is just make sure the ball’s in the zone.”

Mixing things up with his lineups is something Martinez said we might see more of this year.

“Today is just particularly a matchup thing that we did. I would right now prefer some of our younger, younger guys to kind of stay on the bottom and get them going a little bit, focus on some of the other things, but we’re going to have to mix and match a little bit this year.”

One thing he doesn’t plan on changing up much is his No. 2 hitter.

“As you know, the one thing I do like is having Joey [Meneses] in the two-hole,” Martinez said. “Because if we do have someone that needs to get that last at-bat [of the game] we want to make that sure he gets it. And I like Dom [Smith] up there as well against righties.

“So we’ll see how this works out today, but like I said, we got to be ready to hit the fastball today. [Strider] is 70-75% fastballs, so we need to be ready.”

[Narrator: “They were not ready.”]

Strider struck out nine through six scoreless, giving up just three hits and three walks as the visiting team jumped out to an early lead and cruised to a 7-1 win.

The Braves’ starter threw 65% fastballs in the outing, and 29% sliders, and the Nationals had a bit of trouble making contact early in the game.

“The high fastballs,” were an issue for his hitters early, Martinez said. “That’s one thing, he starts throwing the ball up there, it’s a swing and miss pitch. We got to get him down. He threw a lot more breaking pitches too, you know, so look, he threw the ball well. We just missed a couple balls. Good swings, just missed them. But he threw the ball well.”

Joey World Order:

Joey Meneses posted a .286/.341/.489 line with 14 doubles and 20 home runs in 96 games and 414 plate appearances at Triple-A Rochester in his first season in Washington’s system before the August 2nd trade deadline, and he came up after the Nationals dealt Juan Soto (& Josh Bell) to the San Diego Padres and went on a sort of out of nowhere run in his first big league opportunity following 10 seasons in the minors, and 12 years total playing pro ball in the U.S., Mexico, and, briefly, Japan.

In 56 games and 240 PAs in the majors, Meneses went 72 for 222 (.324/.367/.563) with 14 more doubles and 13 more home runs.

Meneses put up, “72 hits through his first 56 games,” in the majors which were, “… the most by any rookie through his first 56 games in franchise history (MON/WSH),” as the club noted in their Season in Review.

The first baseman/DH/outfielder, “… led Washington in hits (72), HR (13) & RBI[s] (34) [after] being called up on 8/2... His 72 hits ranked 2nd in the NL [after] 8/2 and his 13 HR were [tied for 4th].”

The 30-year-old slugger impressed on the international stage this spring as well, playing for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, with his 10 hits tied for the most in the WBC, then he returned to the Nats and went 2 for 5 with two hits in the 2023 season opener.

“It was awesome,” manager Davey Martinez said of Meneses’s ‘23 debut.

“I’ve said this before, he’s a good hitter. He understands who he is at the plate, he stays in the middle of the field, and he’s a really good hitter.”

Meneses went 0 for 4 with three Ks in the Nationals’ loss on Saturday.

Nationals Sign Plawecki:

Before yesterday’s game, Washington Post writer Andrew Golden, citing a source, reported on the Nationals signing 32-year-old veteran catcher Kevin Plawecki, who played in a total of 63 games in the majors last year between Boston and Texas, in his 8th big league season.

Plawecki got a minor league deal from the Nats, providing some depth in the organization, with just two active catchers on their 40-man roster at the moment (Keibert Ruiz and Riley Adams) with Israel Pineda (right finger fracture) placed on the 10-Day IL (retroactive to 3/27) before the season opener.

“It just gives us a veteran guy with some depth,” Martinez said of adding the backstop to the organization.

“Catchers, you never have enough catchers. You’re one foul tip away, one pitch away from something happening, so we just want to make sure we have enough.”

With Pineda not progressing/healing as they’d hoped, the Nationals thought it was prudent to add some depth.

“We knew [Pineda] had a hairline fracture,” the skipper explained. “We just didn’t think it was going to be as long. But now we went and got him reevaluated, it hasn’t really healed, so we went and put him on the IL.”