Gray faces live hitters for first time, Cavalli strikes out eight in rehab start

It wasn’t much, only 23 pitches to a pair of hitters standing in front of a screen as several coaches and trainers watched from behind. For Josiah Gray, though, this was a significant step: His first time facing live batters since going on the injured list more than six weeks ago.

“Definitely put a smile on my face,” the Nationals right-hander said, “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 going to enjoy this one.”

On the 15-day IL since mid-April with a flexor strain in his right elbow, Gray was cleared to start throwing again in short order. And he has been throwing off a bullpen mound for several weeks now.

But the Nationals wanted to hold off before taking this next step, wanting to make sure the 26-year-old was both in good physical shape and with clean pitching mechanics first.

“The thing is, we really want to try to keep this as more of a prevention thing,” manager Davey 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.”

That slow-and-steady process wasn’t the easiest thing for Gray to accept. When he learned his injury wasn’t as severe as initially hoped, he envisioned a shorter rehab program than this. But along the way, he grew to understand why the team was taking this approach.

“I think there were definitely some frustrating days, but that’s part of being in a rehab setting,” he said. “You just kind of have to appreciate each day as being like a step forward. Today was obviously a big step forward, and (now) looking forward to the next one.”

Gray took the mound at Nationals Park shortly after 1 p.m., having already thrown 27 warmup pitches in the dugout. He faced a pair of teammates, infielder Nasim Nuñez and catcher Riley Adams, who took turns batting over the course of his 23-pitch “inning.”

Gray focused on his fastball and was pleased with his command on that pitch. He also said he had a feel for his changeup, but less of one for his multiple breaking balls. Most importantly, he said he felt healthy both before and after the session.

The next step: Gray will throw another simulated game in five days, this time building up to two innings of work. If that goes well, the Nationals could decide he’s ready to go on an official minor league rehab assignment and pitch for one of the club’s affiliates.

* Cade Cavalli made his second rehab start this morning in West Palm Beach, blowing away a group of Nats minor leaguers with four innings and eight strikeouts on only 47 pitches.

Cavalli, in the final stages of recovery from Tommy John surgery in March 2023, averaged 95 mph with his fastball, according to Martinez.

The Nationals haven’t decided yet if Cavalli will remain in West Palm Beach to pitch in the rookie-level Florida Complex League, or if he’ll now move up to one of the organization’s affiliates.

“It could be fairly soon if everything keeps going the way it’s going,” Martinez said. “But the good news is, he feels good and he’s progressing well. He’s utilized all his pitches well. His misses were very clean. And when he did miss, it was typically up, which he wants sometimes. So it was good.”

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