McCoy: Gray dominant as Reds take series vs. Nationals

Just as Max Scherzer said, “Tyler Mahle outpitched me,” Stephen Strasburg can say the same thing about Sonny Gray.

Gray, winless in his previous 11 starts, was tougher than a bus station steak in pitching the Cincinnati Reds to a 3-0 victory over the Washington Nationals on Thursday night.

Gray pitched six scoreless innings and gave up two hits, one walk and struck out five. He was so dominant that the Nationals hit only three balls out of the infield.

One was a solid single in the first inning by Juan Soto and the other two were fly balls. The other hit was an infield single by Trea Turner in the third.

Gray was in fist-clenching control all night because of his best-yet slider and a solid fastball. He was on the corners more often than a street vendor and never placed a pitch in a hitter’s hot zone.

The Reds took two of three, their first series victory over the Nationals since 2016. It began Tuesday with Tyler Mahle’s win over Max Scherzer.

They lost the Wednesday-Thursday suspended game, 5-3, then won the third game, a shortened seven-inning affair.

“My whole focus this week was challenging guys,” said Gray. “Since it was a seven-inning game, it was more important to challenge guys. It was challenge early and challenge often.”

Gray lost his chance for a seven-inning complete game when he took a hard line drive into his glove hit by Josh Bell for the last out of the sixth inning.

“The ball hit me in the hand and I was losing feeling, it was numb at the moment. I had a mini-panic and I told David (manager Bell) it was probably time to go down there (to the bullpen.)”

Gray got all run(s) he needed in the first inning. Eugenio Suarez, leading off for the third straight game, greeted Strasburg with a home run to right field.

The home run gave Gray a 1-0 lead and gave Suarez four hits, including two home runs, as the leadoff guy.

“That was a beautiful swing by Suarez, man, that was beautiful,” said Jesse Winker, who has hit game-opening home runs three times this season. “He hammered that ball, he absolutely crushed that ball. It’s the best way you can start a game”

It stayed 1-0 as Gray and Strasburg matched pitch-for-pitch — until the fifth inning.

The Reds scored two runs by inflicting Strasburg with a bunch of paper cuts.

And Gray started it by lining one off Strasburg’s glove and hustled it into an infield hit. Suarez walked, Winker’s hard ground hit the second base bag and bounced high into center field for a run and Tyler Naquin blooped a double on the left-field chalk for another run.

“My Uncle Ralph texted me like two games ago,” said Gray. “I hit a couple of ground balls to second and I jogged down to first. He said, ‘Run your butt own to first base. That’s what got you there. You hit the ball, you.’

“I just responded with, ‘OK, yes sir, I will,’” Gray added.

In addition to the infield hit that led him to score a run, Gray fielded five balls hit back to the mound and threw out the runners.

“That text resonated so I was just trying to play baseball,” he said. “Play the game the right way.”

He certainly pitched the right way and Winker was appreciative, as were all his teammates.

“It’s fun playing behind Sonny,” said Winker. “He was electric.”

Of his performance, Gray added, “That was the best my slider has been all year. I got a lot of outs with it because I was throwing it for strikes.

“And my curveball was good,” he said. “The plan was just to attack the zone. My curve started popping later. I wasn’t throwing those spinny, crappy balls into the left hander’s batter’s box. I trusted it in the zone.”