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Josiah Gray Makes The Gutted Nationals Worth Watching

Josiah Gray of the Washington Nationals pitches in the fifth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Greg Fiume/Getty

Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post published a column Thursday about how one brief pitch sequence from Nationals righty Josiah Gray, from the sixth inning of Wednesday’s win over the visiting Toronto Blue Jays, rekindles hope for a bright future for a franchise that recently sold off just about every useful adult on its roster in a trade-deadline teardown. That optimism might overshoot a respectable threshold of reasonableness, but it must be said that the pitch sequence itself was fairly bitchin’: Gray faced Breyvic Valera with runners on first and third following a bone-headed play at third on a grounder that should’ve ended the inning; he used a pair of sharp curves to get ahead 1–2 in the count, and then reared back and fired three straight angry heaters up in the zone, which Valera could only foul away. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat Gray snapped off another sharp curve, and Valera, lunging to get a bat on it, popped it harmlessly on the infield. Inning over, threat neutralized, workday completed. Gray gave a little shout on his way off the diamond. It was cool.

For a 23-year-old rookie with fewer than 10 career appearances under his belt, on a last-place team at the teardown phase of a rebuilding project, Gray has a pretty big job. He and catcher Keibert Ruiz were the main dudes in the blockbuster trade that sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers last month. Ruiz is presently with the Rochester Red Wings, Washington’s Triple-A affiliate; Gray, who’d already made a couple intriguing appearances for the Dodgers this season, came right on into Washington’s rotation. Taking over Max Scherzer’s spot in a rotation would in all cases be one of the least forgiving possible career entry points for a young pitcher, but Gray, as the big-deal pitching prospect in a trade that shipped Scherzer away from the team with whom he very recently won a World Series, has the additional burden of needing to look pretty much from the jump like someone who can redeem that swap.

Improbably, Gray is doing the shit. He has, by a solid margin, been Washington’s best pitcher since arriving in town. You are noting that the other guys in the rotation are Erick Fedde and Paolo Espino and the jaw-droppingly washed-up Patrick Corbin, but here I must insist that Gray has, in fact, been excellent. He’s thrown 22 innings with the Nationals, struck out 22 batters, and amassed a tidy 1.045 WHIP to go with a sparkling 2.86 ERA. He’s done that in impressive starts against the Phillies, the Braves (twice), and now the Blue Jays, all teams far ahead of the Nationals in the standings and fighting for playoff spots. Wednesday he did the super-cool veteran thing of just hunkering down and willing his way through a few tough innings while working to find command of his breaking stuff, against the second-best offense in the American League. He located his stuff in time to do this to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., at the start of that fist-pumping sixth inning:

The Nationals gutted their roster of most of what fans had to hold onto in 2021, or to look forward to in the near future. The roster had gotten top-heavy; the farm system was in shambles; with Corbin sucking shit and Stephen Strasburg’s body falling apart, the chances of fielding another contender anytime soon without some kind of major shakeup were looking extremely remote. The sell-off was that shakeup, with Gray, Ruiz, and several other minor league guys whose names I have not learned making up the reward, but it’s important to note that the reshuffled Nationals are also nowhere close to contending. It may be too early to say whether they’ve entered the dreaded waiting room, but the answers will come soon enough: Juan Soto is due a gargantuan, possibly historic payday in the coming years. If recent history holds and the Nats lose him in free agency as they lost Bryce Harper and then Anthony Rendon, it will be time to close the book on the era when it was possible to look past their sleazy accounting tricks and believe they were one of the too-few MLB franchises willing to pay money for a good baseball team.

But! Josiah Gray rules. He’s got a compact, violent delivery that is fun to watch. His fastball is lively and he can locate it all over. He throws a sharp mid-80s slider that is complemented viciously by a hard, mid-80s curveball that is distinct from the slider only in that it breaks downward—it’s a combination with a demonstrated potential to confound Vlad Jr., and nearly everyone else in baseball is a little bit worse at hitting than Vlad Jr. Even his goofs are fun: He’s already given up seven dingers in just four starts in DC, but owing to his skill at otherwise keeping men off the bases, all seven have been solo shots.

Here’s where Svrluga has it wrong: Nothing Gray can do can possibly offer hope for a bright future for the Nationals, because he’s a pitcher and baseball has never worked that way, and anyway the guys with the checkbook will decide the trajectory of the team’s future. The suits upstairs can commit resources toward making the Nationals a team with hope, or they can sit on a pile of crap with one fun young guy who plays at most every fifth game, soak up prospects, and hope to nickel and dime their way to occasional relevance. I’m not super optimistic! But what Gray can do is rear back and fire an electric fastball, or snap off a nasty curve, or bury a cruel slider; when it’s all working he can befuddle a marquee hitter in a game that matters for at least one of the two teams. For now he can make a miserable baseball team worth watching at least once a week, and that’s not nothing.

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