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Josiah Gray’s career, like this Nats rebuild, requires serious patience

Josiah Gray gave up three home runs in a loss to the Mariners on Wednesday afternoon. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Josiah Gray’s starts are the starts Washington Nationals fans must look forward to these days, which is saying something. They are not the starts of Max Scherzer — and not close. They are not the starts of Stephen Strasburg — and not close. They are not the starts of a fully developed pitcher but a representation of what’s happening all summer — and into next year — at Nationals Park. Pain is part of it. A big part. Ouch.

“The journey, it isn’t a straight line,” Gray said. “It’s up and down. And that’s part of the progress I know I’m going to make.”

The most important work Wednesday at Nationals Park wasn’t what Gray did on the mound in the first game of a doubleheader against the Seattle Mariners, a 6-4 loss in which he missed the strike zone with his first five pitches, he walked two and coughed up a three-run homer before he recorded two outs, and he squeezed out five innings and yielded five runs.

“It’s part of the process,” he said, a 21st-century sports cliche if there ever was one. But he happens to be right.

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Put Gray aside for a second. The most important work at Nationals Park this week is going on under the stands and behind closed doors, where General Manager Mike Rizzo and Kris Kline — his long-ago minor league roommate, his longtime scouting director now — are working with the club’s scouts to build their draft board. The Nats have the fifth pick in Sunday’s first round. With any luck, the player they select will join Gray in the big leagues sooner rather than later. With any luck, players selected later will be impact major leaguers. With any luck.

This is a franchise in so much flux that progress is sometimes impossible to see, even if it is in fact happening. Just because Gray’s last start, in Philadelphia, produced six innings of two-run ball to go with 11 strikeouts —the Nats’ lone win in their past 13 games after Wednesday’s loss in the nightcap — doesn’t promise the next start builds on that success. The line bends and twists, jolts and jags. It’s all necessary.

“We definitely know there’s going to be some ups and downs,” Manager Dave Martinez said, “and there’s going to be a whole lot of teaching moments.”

That’s for Gray. But it’s a good reminder for fans, too.

After Wednesday’s start, Gray’s 17th of the season, his ERA bumped up to 4.40 and his walks and hits per inning pitched settled at 1.27. The average major league starter this year: 4.10 ERA, 1.27 WHIP. He has been average-ish.

Let’s take a look at the same numbers from other pitchers in the first season in which they made 20 starts: 4.26 and 1.49; 3.88 and 1.32; 4.30 and 1.22; 4.02 and 1.33; 4.44 and 1.21. Those belong to, in order, Clayton Kershaw, Sandy Alcantara, Luis Castillo, Max Fried and Joe Musgrove — all of whom are on this year’s National League all-star team.

Similar to Gray, right? Now, is that fudging it a bit? Sure, because it doesn’t include NL all-star Corbin Burnes’s first 20-start season, though it’s worth noting that Burnes’s résumé includes a year in which he made 32 appearances — 28 in relief — and had an 8.82 ERA. It also doesn’t include fellow all-star Tony Gonsolin because the Los Angeles Dodgers have so babied his development that he doesn’t have a 20-start season yet.

The point is that what Gray was Wednesday — without his legs under him, his fastball sailing all over the place — isn’t who Gray will be next year or the year after. Shoot, Scherzer’s first season of at least 20 big league starts produced a 4.12 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP. Scherzer’s past six non-pandemic seasons have resulted in ERAs below 3.00. His first five were above that number.

“I got to understand where we’re at with him and just guide him and teach him,” Martinez said. “I think he’s going to be really, really good. I could see him as a number two, as a number three starter. He’s got the stuff for it. But we’ve got to get him consistent.”

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Part of that is making sure he controls his fastball from the first batter. Gray’s curveball and slider are good enough to retire major league hitters, but they’re far more effective when he can work ahead with his fastball. Another piece in his development will be to more frequently rely on his change-up. By the time he threw one Wednesday — a middle-middle offering to Adam Frazier — it was the fourth inning, and his fastball had almost been eliminated. Frazier jacked the pitch out, one of three Mariners homers off Gray.

Wednesday was Gray’s 29th start for the Nationals, a stint that began with last summer’s franchise-altering trade that sent Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers and brought in Gray and the man who caught him against Seattle, Keibert Ruiz. In Class AAA, Los Angeles and Washington last year, Gray threw just 86⅓ innings. Wednesday’s five-inning outing brought him to 92 in 2022 — and the all-star break isn’t even here yet.

“We’re going to have to really keep an eye on him and watch his workload,” Martinez said. “But he’s a competitor.”

That is not lost on his teammates. After the two first-inning walks and Eugenio Suârez’s day-dampening three-run homer, Gray got a strikeout looking on a slider and a strikeout swinging on a curveball. After he allowed solo homers to Jesse Winker and Frazier in the fourth, he worked a 1-2-3 fifth. It will be forgotten over the course of his career. On a day when the Nats needed to play twice — and when they probably lost reliever Tanner Rainey for the year — every inning mattered.

“I like the way he’s always grinding,” said Juan Soto, who — lookie here — used a three-run homer and three walks in the opener and a solo homer in the nightcap to lift his on-base-plus-slugging percentage to .892. “He never give up. That’s just a huge thing for a pitcher.”

That quality won’t go away, even as the supporting qualities improve. Gray probably will never be Scherzer or Kershaw, but who is? Could he be — well, pick another starting pitcher on the NL roster for Tuesday’s game? Sure.

The best part about that decidedly-not-straight-line journey: Gray understands it. He doesn’t have to like it, but he accepts it.

“Unfortunately, today happened,” Gray said. “But it’s not unexpected. It’s part of becoming a big league pitcher. It’s part of continuing to establish myself. I’ll continue to go through it.”

The fan base has to continue to go through it with him. Along the way, there will be days like Wednesday. Around a corner that’s somewhere in the middle distance, there will be better days more consistently. Josiah Gray’s next start probably won’t be till after the all-star break. Tune in for the journey, and wait for the trajectory to straighten out.