Scott Cassidy had a decision to make.
Le Moyne College, the team for which Cassidy coached, held onto a three-run lead early in the 2017 season. But despite Josiah Gray owning an 8.31 ERA across the 8 2/3 innings, he pitched as a freshman, Cassidy turned to the sophomore in a critical position.
Gray, recruited as a two-way player, had already clubbed the go-ahead three-run homer earlier in the game. He needed four outs to secure the win when he took the mound.
And he struck out all four, blowing 95-mph fastballs past the hitters.
“Whoa, this kid has got some legit stuff,” Cassidy recalled saying. “This might be his thing.”
Cassidy witnessed Gray’s steady progression as a pitcher throughout college, but it’s that sequence the coach points to as the first eye-popping moment in Gray’s development. It wouldn’t be the last. He pitched a complete game in his final college start as a junior, still throwing 95 into the ninth inning. The New Rochelle, New York, native posted a 0.63 ERA as a sophomore and a 0.89 WHIP as a junior.
And four years after Gray wowed Cassidy with four straight punchouts to close a game, Gray took the mound at Nationals Park, a central piece of a rebuild in Washington. He was one of the headlining returning players in the deal that sent Trea Turner and Max Scherzer to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and with his five innings Monday night, Gray showed why he’s considered the 59th best prospect in baseball.
“I would be lying if I said I thought it would be like this,” Cassidy said. “I don’t think anybody saw how great he’d become.”
The crowd assembled at Nationals Park on Monday night saw the first glimpses of that at the major league level. Gray arrived in Washington and was activated to the roster Sunday morning. He took the mound Monday night, on a new team with new expectations — a team looking toward the future rather than the present, banking on a 23-year-old to be a major part of that.
When Gray walked off the mound following a 1-2-3 first inning, the fans behind the dugout gave him a standing ovation, welcoming him to the Nationals. He’d walk off four more times, concluding his outing with 71 pitches. He allowed four hits, including a solo homer to Odubel Herrera on a fastball left over the plate. Gray walked two and struck out two more.
In all, it was a promising first outing for a young arm, finding his way with a new organization while being thrown in the deep end against the Phillies. He didn’t sink.
“I felt pretty comfortable throughout my whole outing, just from pitch one to my last pitch,” Gray said. “Nerves didn’t really get to me. Obviously, they are still there a little bit. But I felt comfortable, I felt like my stuff was pretty good, I felt like could be better — it will be better. Overall, I’m happy with the outing and I feel like there’s a lot of room to grow.”
When Cassidy first recruited Gray, he envisioned a two-way player with more upside in the middle infield. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, he doesn’t have the frame of most MLB pitchers.
But Gray gained traction off the mound in college, seeing a sharp rise in velocity. And when he played in the Cape Cod Baseball League during the summer of 2017, Cassidy knew Gray’s future wasn’t at shortstop or at the plate. So Cassidy sat Gray down when he returned to Le Moyne College in the fall.
“Hey, you realize you’re no longer playing in the infield?” Cassidy asked him. “And the look on his face was like, you know, you’re telling a position player they’re not going to hit anymore. It was like pulling teeth. He didn’t want to hear it, but he also understood. Like, listen, ‘You have a chance to make money at this position. You’re really, really good at it.’”
That decision led the Cincinnati Reds to draft Gray in the second round of the 2018 MLB Draft. And two trades later — the first to the Dodgers and second to the Nationals — brought him to the mound Monday night in Washington.
He first found out about the trade Thursday night, then flew to Oklahoma City on Saturday, where the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate is, to grab some things from his place. Next came his flight Sunday morning to D.C., racing to the ballpark to meet his new teammates.
“It’s been a whirlwind of a last four days,” Gray said, “but it kind of comes with the business, comes with the territory.”
Gray hardly had a chance to settle in before he was on the mound, a major part of the Nationals’ rebuild introducing himself to Washington on Monday night. He mixed a curveball and slider into his repertoire, and the same fastball that once captivated Cassidy stood out to manager Dave Martinez.
“He’s the future for us,” Martinez said.
And the future is now.