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Wednesday, March 16, 2022

OPINION:

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Josiah Gray recognizes his responsibilities. He will likely be one of the Nationals’ starting pitchers.

“I want to go out there and make sure I put the team in a good position to win,” he said, reciting the pledge that every starter makes before they get the ball.


But he has additional responsibilities that, unfortunately, too few major league pitchers share these days.

He is a Black starting pitcher. There are so few of them in baseball, that, by my count, it would be tough to put together a full rotation.

There’s Gray’s teammate Joe Ross, and Marcus Stroman with the Chicago Cubs, Triston McKenzie with the Cleveland Guardians, and David Price with the Los Angeles Dodgers, though Price was used as a reliever more last season. Chris Archer remains a free agent.

If there are others, I apologize for overlooking them. They can’t afford to be overlooked. They are too precious a commodity for a game that is struggling to recapture the interest of the Black community, both in the stands and on the field, where the percentage of Black players has dropped, depending on what numbers you believe, from a high of 19% on major league rosters in 1981 to 7% today.

Gray, 24, doesn’t presume he has a job in the rotation — he called it a “potential spot.” And there is nothing official yet. 

But it’s likely Gray could be the third or fourth starter in the Nationals’ rotation for 2022.   

If so, he will have the eyes of a city with a strong Black community fixed on him

“The lack of representation sticks out to me,” Gray said. “But I just wear it with pride. I am in a unique position, being an African-American starter in the big leagues. That carries weight. You want to go out there for your team, but you always want to go out there for you fellow African-Americans, those guys working in the minors and in college, hoping to get drafted. They are looking up to you. I think it is important for me, guys like Marcus Stroman, C.C. Sabathia, when he was playing — it … shows that they can do this as well.”

Gray was one of the key figures in the trade, along with catching prospect Keibert Ruiz, that sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers. 

He had been drafted in the second round by the Cincinnati Reds in 2018 and was traded to the Dodgers later that year in a multiplayer deal. Gray would go on to post an 11-2 mark in 2019, between low A ball and Class AA, with a 2.70 ERA and 147 strikeouts in 130 innings. He was named the Dodgers Minor League Pitcher of the Year. After COVID shut down the minor leagues in 2020, Gray, after a shoulder injury, would pitch for Class AAA Oklahoma City and go on to strike out 22 batters and walk only two in three starts. He was promoted to the Dodgers on July 20 and 10 days later was traded to Washington. He made his debut for the Nationals last season on Aug. 2 against the Philadelphia Phillies, allowing four hits and one run over five innings. Gray struggled his next few starts until he finished strong, with his first major league win coming against the Miami Marlins on Sept. 22, allowing six hits and two earned runs, with eight strikeouts, over six innings.

“It was up and down,” Gray said of his first season in Washington “I started out great and then I had a little tough stretch in the middle and then ended on a high note. It was a great experience.”

Nationals manager Dave Martinez spoke of that learning experience. 

“He learned a lot about himself and we learned a lot about him and what he could do,” Martinez said. “I talked to him at the end of the year about coming back this year a little stronger, so he could go deeper in games. He worked hard this winter.”

So far, the evidence is that Gray, an Academic All-American at Division II Le Moyne College who posted a 4.0 GPA the semester he was drafted, listened to those lessons.

After Gray’s first live batting practice pitching session Tuesday, Martinez said, “When I watched him today, I made sure Ricky Bones (new Nationals bullpen coach and former major league pitcher), who doesn’t know him the way we do, watched him to see what his thoughts were, and he thought his stuff was electric already,” Martinez said. “Last year we took care of him, but this year the sky is the limit.”

Maybe even a matchup this season with the iconic Nationals player he was traded for — Scherzer, who signed as a free agent this winter with the division rival New York Mets.

“I trained with him (Scherzer) a little bit over at Cressey (Sports Performance Center in nearby Palm Beach Gardens) this offseason,” Gray said. “Really nice guy. I picked his brain a few times. He’s as good as it gets on the mound. I am excited to maybe go up against him.”

Could be worth the price of a ticket, especially in Wards 7 and 8 in the District.

Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.


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