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Josiah Gray puts budding slider on display before Nats lose on walk-off

Nationals starting pitcher Josiah Gray threw seven innings of two-run ball against the Rangers on Saturday. (Jeffrey Mcwhorter/AP)
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ARLINGTON, Tex. — Over the course of a Saturday afternoon at Globe Life Field, Josiah Gray and his slider were responsible for striking out Corey Seager, inducing a one-pitch groundout from the shortstop, striking out Adolis García (twice) and doing the same to Kole Calhoun. That accounted for the second, third and fourth batters of the Texas Rangers’ top-heavy order. Gray and his slider — snapping right to left at 85 mph — even set down García and Calhoun in back-to-back at-bats in the fourth, just as he hit the height of his rhythm in a 3-2 loss for the Washington Nationals.

Whenever that rhythm slipped, Gray’s slider was there. So were a curve and a change-up that sneaked into his arsenal in the fifth. A week after he threw a career-high 117 pitches in six frames, Gray needed just 94 to limit the Rangers for seven. And once Nathaniel Lowe hammered a fastball for a two-run homer in a second, he almost ditched the pitch entirely, favoring his slider and curve in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh.

“It’s obviously good to pitch well, but … you want to win. That’s the end goal,” Gray said once the Nationals (26-48) fell on García’s walk-off homer off Kyle Finnegan. “Whether I go three innings or seven, I want to win a game, as does everyone in the clubhouse. Yeah, it feels good, but also there’s still that bitter ending to have that loss in the column.”

On the season, the 24-year-old had thrown a four-seam fastball for 44 percent of his pitches. On Saturday, that rate slimmed to 29 percent. In the third, 11 of his 14 pitches were off-speed. In the fifth, Gray threw 12 straight off-speed pitches, including his first four change-ups of the game, before Leody Taveras slapped a fastball for a two-out single. That felt like a lesson and affirmation of his inverted approach. The Rangers were telling Gray to trust himself.

The aggressive Rangers (34-36) swung at 14 of Gray’s sliders and missed eight. That helped the righty log nine strikeouts and push deeper than he ever had in the majors. Gray yielded four hits and walked one. He also retired Marcus Semien, Texas’s leadoff hitter, three times on six total pitches. And when he struck out Taveras to cap the seventh, stranding a runner on second, the Rangers were 0 for 13 with runners in scoring position in the series.

“It was just the game plan and knowing the feel of my pitches in those innings,” Gray said of committing to his slider and curve late. “Kind of just tinkering with my stuff. … Yeah, I could have thrown more fastballs there, but I felt like I was keeping them off balance with the breaking balls and the change-up.”

Gray, who has clicked in his past five starts, still needed a bit of aid from the offense. Instead, outside of Nelson Cruz’s two-run shot in the sixth, the bats stayed quiet to give the Rangers life. Facing five relievers, the Nationals wilted against Brett Martin and Taylor Hearn — Washington’s 2015 fifth-round pick — in the early going. They wasted two base runners in the seventh when Lane Thomas bounced into a double play and Juan Soto struck out. Then with none down and a man on first in the eighth, Cruz ripped a grounder to third, the umpires called it foul, and the Nationals rightfully argued that Josh Smith touched the ball in fair territory.

But the play was non-reviewable, Cruz bounced into a double play, too, and the Nationals soon lost when García pummeled Finnegan’s hanging slider.

“We had our chances. I mean, we had our chances early, we had our chances late,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “We’re just struggling driving in some runs right now, and we clearly got one taken away from us. Just a tough day for our offense.”

What was Martinez’s reaction to the missed call in the eighth? “It becomes a judgement call, so you can’t review it,” said Martinez, who chatted with Chad Fairchild, who manned third, and plate umpire Laz Díaz. “I just saw it again, and I hope they look at it tonight. That’s all I’m going to say.”

What did Cruz see on the play? “I mean it was obvious. I saw it right away. He hit it and was in fair territory,” Cruz said. “... It’s a judgement call, and it’s probably tough for [Fairchild] to see the baseball and see where the defender was in that situation. I guess he needs help from all the guys. But, yeah, that hurt us.”

How does Gray’s slider stack up leaguewide? Gray entered Saturday with a whiff rate of 46.6 percent on sliders, ranking seventh among pitchers who had thrown 200 or more this season. When a batter swings at Gray’s slider in 2022, he is missing close to half the time. And of the top seven pitchers in that category, the only other starter is New York Mets lefty David Peterson, who leads the way at 52.5 percent. The rest of Gray’s peers are Mets reliever Edwin Díaz, Seattle Mariners reliever Andrés Muñoz, Kansas City Royals reliever Dylan Coleman, St. Louis Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos and Oakland Athletics reliever Dany Jiménez.

How did Erick Fedde score a win without pitching? Thanks to some serious commitment, Fedde set the high score on the Pop-A-Shot machine in the visitors’ clubhouse, besting the previous high mark of 164 that belonged to Ryan Thompson, a reliever for the Tampa Bay Rays. But Fedde’s 168 wouldn’t be officially recorded until he assured the clubhouse attendants he was finished for the weekend. They wanted to give him a fair chance to stretch his lead.

“I feel really, really good, man,” Fedde said after telling reporters before the game to write 168 in their notebooks. “This is the best press conference of my life.”

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