With ‘training wheels’ off, Josiah Gray adjusts to life in Nats’ rotation

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Josiah Gray’s outing in the Washington Nationals’ 6-5 victory over the Colorado Rockies on Sunday encapsulated his performance this season: It mixed a young player’s growing pains with signs of promise.

After the right-hander allowed a leadoff home run to Charlie Blackmon, it conjured up memories of his previous outing, when he lasted just three innings against the team that traded him away last summer.

The good was that Gray settled in and allowed just two more hits over five innings to avoid any additional damage. The bad was that he issued four walks, running up his pitch count and ending his day early.

“I think I’ve shown flashes of good outings and bad,” Gray said. “That’s any pitcher, but … you have to continue to be consistent. So still working on that, but today it was definitely a step forward.”

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Gray, 24, came to Washington as one of the most valuable assets in last summer’s deadline deal that sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Nationals view Gray as a pivotal piece of their future, but what kind of pitcher he’ll be — an ace or a serviceable starter — remains to be seen.

“He’s progressing really well, and he’s matured a lot,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “For him, the training wheels are off. Although he hasn’t got up to that 100-pitch mark yet, he’s competing and he’s keeping us in games.”

In 10 starts, Gray has a 5.08 ERA — not an ideal figure. But that’s part of the learning curve that comes with trading for a young pitcher.

His ERA was 3.12 after he threw six scoreless innings against the San Francisco Giants on May 1. Since then, he has taken some steps back. Gray allowed five first-inning runs in a 6-1 loss to the Houston Astros. He allowed seven in three innings against the Dodgers, admitting that he let his emotions get the best of him while facing his former team for the first time.

Gray has allowed at least four runs in four of his 10 starts, but he has allowed one or zero runs in the same number of appearances.

One of the most important areas for Gray to grow is relying less on his fastball and more on throwing his off-speed and breaking balls for strikes. Martinez even sent Gray down to pitch in a few minor league games during spring training to work on that skill.

Martinez wanted Gray to use his change-up instead of his fastball against Blackmon in the first inning Sunday. The manager has implored the righty to throw the change-up more, especially against left-handers. He has thrown the pitch just 28 times this season, but employing it could’ve messed with Blackmon’s timing. Instead, Blackmon slugged a fastball for a home run.

“He needs to start using it,” Martinez said. “We talked about it when he came out, and he agreed. So we’re going to get him in that bullpen and get him to really work on it and show him and talk to him about when it’s effective.”

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Gray has dropped his fastball usage from 51.6 percent last year to 45.6 this season. Before Blackmon’s home run Sunday, José Altuve slugged a fastball for a homer on the first pitch of the game in Gray’s loss to the Astros.

“I think as good as they get, the more I can access the zone with them, it opens up the strike zone for me more,” Gray said.

Gray has had success when he plans to use his breaking and off-speed pitches often. Against the Marlins on May 18, he struck out six with the slider and got 15 whiffs with the pitch.

Beyond that, Gray is still working through pitch selection, dealing with how he responds to adversity and adjusting how he handles high-leverage situations when trailing early.

“There’s been some [starts] that have been rocky and haven’t gone my way. There’s been some that have been really good,” Gray said. “So now it’s just blending that consistency and making sure every outing is a good outing.”

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