By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Josiah Gray didn’t have to tell the truth.
Following a rough outing, in which he gave up seven earned runs over just three innings against the Dodgers, the 24-year-old Nationals right-hander could’ve just said what most players say when they face their former team. That would be some version of, “I just treat it like any other game and go out there and compete.”
Instead, Gray admitted that he was thinking about what most people were thinking about going into Tuesday’s Dodgers-Nationals game in Washington: last year’s trade that sent Gray, catcher Keibert Ruiz, outfielder Donovan Casey and pitcher Gerardo Carrillo to D.C. in exchange for franchise icons Max Scherzer and Trea Turner.
“There were a lot of emotions, honestly,” Gray said. “In being traded twice already, this was my first opportunity to prove myself against a former team. I obviously let the emotions get ahead of me and didn’t control them from the first pitch on.
“Unfortunately, today didn’t go my way, but I’m looking forward to facing the Dodgers again and giving it my all and trying to put it to them.”
It was a refreshingly candid self-assessment from a young pitcher after just his 22nd career start. He clearly wanted to stick it to a team that decided it didn’t need him anymore. Of course, any pitcher trying to take down the Dodgers is going to have a challenging time regardless of the circumstances.
And if everyone wasn’t already thinking about the trade when Gray took the mound on Tuesday, it didn’t take long before Turner loudly reminded the crowd in his first at-bat:
Almost two months after welcoming back Scherzer, Nationals fans had the opportunity to salute their former star shortstop, who was also a key figure throughout the team’s legendary World Series run. While the excitement surrounding Scherzer’s return was amplified by the natural pomp and circumstance of opening weekend, the reception for Turner was notably more subdued. For one, these were weekday games with smaller crowds than the Friday night showdown with Scherzer.
More importantly, the tone of the Nationals’ season has already shifted dramatically over the first 45 games. As the Nats have descended into what appears to be another last-place season, memories of the miraculous championship run in 2019 feel much more distant than just three years ago. In turn, Turner was met more with friendly applause rather than a rousing ovation. Though it’s been less than a year since the trade, both Turner and the Nationals are in very different places now, and you can only reminisce so much before needing to move on.
Still, Turner reminded Nats fans what they’re missing. He extended his hitting streak to 17 games with hits in all three games of the series and stole a couple bases in the finale to bring his season total to 10, tied for fourth in MLB. You know, normal Trea Turner stuff — the kind of stuff that exhilarated Nationals fans during his nearly seven-year tenure in Washington. But now, he’s no longer one of a few star faces of a great team the way he was in D.C.; with L.A., he’s just another big name in a lineup almost exclusively filled with stars. He’s still amazing — he just blends in a whole lot more.
As Turner continues to excel on a team used to excellence, Gray and Ruiz are as critical as any players on the Nationals’ roster this side of Juan Soto. Broadly speaking, a rough Gray outing does not mean much for a Nationals team that joined the Reds on Tuesday as the first MLB teams to reach 30 losses. Gray’s successes and failures in 2022 will not make a dramatic impact on Washington’s place in the standings, and that’s OK. At the same time, Gray’s starts and Ruiz’s at-bats will always be viewed through a much more critical lens than those of the several veterans occupying the rest of the spots in the lineup and rotation.
Often on rebuilding teams, the bulk of the playing time is given to young players — either top prospects or those who couldn’t find a spot on more competitive teams but have succeeded in the minors — looking to prove that they can be significant contributors to the next good version of that team. That is very much not the case for Washington, which features numerous veterans with decades of combined MLB experience still getting regular playing time. César Hernández, Josh Bell, Nelson Cruz, Maikel Franco, Alcides Escobar and Dee Strange-Gordon might help the Nationals stay respectable in 2022, but they aren’t going to be around the next time this team is truly contending.
Gray and Ruiz should be, and will need to prove themselves as quality major-leaguers sooner rather than later, especially if the team intends to convince Soto that Washington should be his home beyond 2024.
Of course, the most important factor influencing whether Soto sticks around long-term is going to be just how historic of an extension offer the Nationals can produce. Soto’s agent, Scott Boras, who was in attendance for the first two games of the series, notoriously advocates for his clients to wait until free agency to cash in. Nevertheless, GM Mike Rizzo will surely continue to pursue an extension with the 23-year-old superstar, though the process may be complicated by the reported possibility of the team getting new ownership at some point in the near future.
Meanwhile on the field, Soto has yet to really get going. Unsurprisingly, he is once again leading MLB in walks, but his overall production doesn’t quite resemble that of the MVP candidate he looked like in 2021. He has eight home runs but just 13 RBIs, a concerning indicator of the lack of offense surrounding him in the lineup.
Through May 25 a year ago, however, Soto was hitting .281/.389/.413, a perfectly solid line but far below the Soto Standard. He wound up at .313/.465/.534 and was the MVP runner-up. He’s plenty capable of doing the same in 2022.
But even if he does turn back into Best Hitter In the World Juan Soto, it likely won’t be nearly enough to flip the fate of this Nationals season too drastically. Though they were able to avoid a series sweep by the Dodgers with a 1-0 win on Wednesday, the Nationals still have a worse record (15-30) than every team but Cincinnati.
It may be a long summer in the nation’s capital standings-wise, but a lot will be learned about the future of the organization in the coming months.
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He lives in D.C. but is a huge Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching the KBO, which means he doesn’t get a lot of sleep. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.
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