Sim game, rehab progress put smile on Gray's face

May 26th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jessica Camerato's Nationals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

On a day when starter Trevor Williams struck out eight in a Nationals win over the Mariners and No. 5 prospect Cade Cavalli also fanned eight in four frames of an intrasquad game in Florida, made a significant step in his return from injury.

Gray threw a simulated game at Nationals Park on Saturday afternoon for the first time since being sidelined by a right elbow/forearm flexor strain in early April. The right-hander delivered 23 pitches on the mound and another 27 in the bullpen.

"It definitely felt different [coming to the park today],” Gray said. “Definitely put a smile on my face being able to get some pep back in my step and know that I'm able to go out there and face hitters. That's what I love to do. That's what I like, to just go out there and compete. So just a really, really important day and I'm definitely gonna enjoy this one."

Gray was placed on the 15-day injured list on April 9, retroactive to April 6, after posting a 14.04 ERA in his first two starts of the season. The Nationals have been taking a cautious approach to his return.

“We really want to try to keep this as more of a prevention thing,” manager Dave Martinez said. “We don’t want him to get hurt again. So we wanted to make sure we took time, that he was in his legs, that everything was sound and then we can build up from there. I talked to [pitching coach Jim] Hickey afterward, and mechanically, he looked really good. We’re definitely headed in the right direction.”

Getting acclimated to the process was an adjustment for the competitive Gray, who has tallied 307 2/3 innings over the past two seasons and earned his first All-Star selection last year.

“It definitely took me a couple of conversations to obviously take a step back and just look at it from a big picture sort of thing,” Gray said. “I'm glad that I did because it allowed me the freedom to just appreciate every day and the process."

Gray likes to tinker, working seven pitches into his arsenal. His self assessment was: “Fastball was really good. Cutter was really good. Changeup, I threw a couple solid ones. Breaking balls weren't there yet. Slider was there, but the sweeper and curveball weren't as crisp just yet.”

If Gray feels OK on Sunday, the next step in the rehab process will be throwing two ups in another five days. He will travel with the Nats on their road trip to Atlanta and Cleveland next week.

In the meantime, Gray has been wowed by how his fellow pitchers have performed this season. The staff is tied for first among all teams in fewest home runs allowed. Fellow starters Jake Irvin, MacKenzie Gore, No. 20 prospect Mitchell Parker (who was called up for his debut when Gray was sidelined) and Williams entered Saturday with a combined 3.15 ERA.

"All five of them have been phenomenal, and it's fun to watch,” said Gray. “I want to be a part of it sooner rather than later. Obviously, it's just trusting that process and trusting that things are going to be right where we need them to be. I know that they're going to keep going out there and doing their thing and leading us and keeping us in a good spot.”

Martinez arrived at Nationals Park the same time as Gray on Saturday morning. Gray was excited before getting on the mound, and he was just as excited -- if not moreso -- after the sim game.

"It signifies everything,” Gray said. “It signifies the daily work, the daily gratitude of being able to rehab with our phenomenal training staff and our coaching staff and being able to come to games every day and trust that they know that I'm putting in the work and being able to be out there soon with them.

“[I’m] proud of the process, I'm proud of me, to be able to just see the light at the end of the tunnel and have this be the first step in getting back out there."