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Nats’ Josiah Gray, already an all-star, earns a new title: Opening Day starter

Nats’ Josiah Gray, already an all-star, earns a new title: Opening Day starter

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Josiah Gray walked out of Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez’s office late last week with good news about the future and plenty of time to think about the past. He thought about 2020, when he was in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ first wave of spring roster cuts; his first full season with the Nationals in 2022; and when he was named an all-star in 2023.

The 26-year-old right-hander also thought ever so briefly about the Cincinnati Reds, the team that took him as a second-round pick out of Le Moyne College in 2018. The reason: the Nationals will hand Gray the ball in Cincinnati on March 28, when he’ll be the Opening Day starter against the Reds. Cincinnati will turn to right-hander Frankie Montas.

Left-hander Patrick Corbin, who started for Washington on Opening Day in 2022 and 2023, will pitch the second game of the series. The team has yet to announce the starter for its home opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 1.

“It means a lot,” said Gray, who arrived in Washington as part of the Max Scherzer-Trea Turner trade in 2021. “It means progress. Progress is probably the first word that comes to mind because of how I’ve progressed through the league in the short amount of time I’ve been a major leaguer.

“I just remember my first big league camp being with the Dodgers and getting cut and thinking how that feeling was — and to say you’re going to be our first arm out of spring training going into the season is really cool and really surreal.”

Gray had the best season of his career last year, earning his first all-star nod as the Nationals’ lone representative at the event. Though his production tailed off in the second half of the season — pitching to a 3.41 ERA before the all-star break and 4.76 ERA after — Martinez and pitching coach Jim Hickey have identified a heightened level of maturity and focus in Gray this spring.

He showed he was ready, in other words, for a bigger stage. In the All-Star Game he threw a perfect inning. He allowed a .217 batting average against in high-leverage moments in 2023, better than his season average of .251. The decision also signaled a generational shift, from the veteran guard of Corbin (with Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg before him) to a younger cadre led by Gray, 25-year-old left-hander MacKenzie Gore and the stable of Gen Z arms behind them.

“Coming into camp, he’s been so much, so much different as far as his growth,” Martinez said. “He finally is understanding who he is, working on things that he needs to work on, not trying to reinvent the wheel. He knows that he needs to go out there and attack and throw strikes. So he’s been a lot different than spring. I’m proud of him.”

Gray said the list for Opening Day attendees includes his mom, aunt, brother, girlfriend, agent, girlfriend’s family and, well:

“We’ll see, because it just got announced,” he said about an hour after the Nationals made the decision official Sunday morning. “So I’ll probably get a lot of requests pretty shortly.”

Just a few friends are left from Gray’s time in Cincinnati’s minor league system — Jonathan India, Hunter Greene and Lyon Richardson came to mind. Cincinnati, he said, is young and hungry. Just like Washington.

“A really cool feeling,” Gray said of the Opening Day opportunity. “When you get to the big leagues, you don’t really think about that. But it was really cool to hear that from [Martinez] and just to be able to enjoy the moment with my family.”

Nats make more roster moves

Washington made its second round of roster decisions after Sunday’s 9-8 win over the New York Mets, optioning right-hander Jackson Rutledge to Class AAA Rochester while reassigning right-handers Robert Gsellman and Luis Perdomo, second baseman Darren Baker, first baseman Lewin Díaz and catcher Brady Lindsly to minor league camp.

Martinez said he anticipates Rutledge will join the rotation at some point this season — noting that the eight starters Washington needed last year was probably an aberration, in terms of health — but wanted him to pitch every five days in minor league camp.

Notable among the decisions were Gsellman (allowing just one run in nine innings pitched this spring), who Martinez sees as a two-to-three inning pitcher for Washington down the road, and Baker, the son of former Nationals manager Dusty Baker.

Kyle Finnegan out with a back issue

Martinez announced that closer Kyle Finnegan is out with a stiff back and won’t return until after the team’s day off on Tuesday. The right-hander led the Nationals with 28 saves last season and had a 3.76 ERA, but hadn’t pitched since March 12. Martinez said the team is being cautious; he spoke with Finnegan on Sunday, who relayed that he feels “way better.”

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