Gray wraps up strong April with win over Pirates (updated)

Josiah Gray was standing alone in right field around 1 p.m., going through his pregame stretch routine and preparing to enter the bullpen to begin warming up for he expected to be a 1:35 p.m. first pitch at Nationals Park.

And then the rain began falling, and all of a sudden people were huddling up and yelling across the field to others to halt all game prep and head back indoors, the start of the game now delayed.

Gray would return to the Nationals clubhouse and remain there for 2 1/2 hours before finally emerging again to start the routine all over again. Then he made sure the long wait was worth it, authoring another quality start to complete a most impressive opening month to what could be a breakthrough season.

With six innings of one-run ball against the red-hot Pirates, Gray made another statement in an April filled with them. The 25-year-old right-hander, with some much-appreciated run support from his teammates, led the Nats to a 7-2 victory over Pittsburgh to avoid a sweep at the end of a long weekend that featured as much rain as baseball.

"He's been unbelievable, since spring training," manager Davey Martinez said. "His routine, the way he's going about his business, the way he's mapping out the game plan ... that's just a testament to what he wants to do. And right now, he's doing unbelievable."

Friday’s series opener was a washout, forcing Saturday’s day-night doubleheader. Today’s finale always looked touch-and-go, but they managed to play the game in full following a 2-hour, 26-minute delay, with only a fraction of the 16,898 who paid to attend sticking it out until the end.

Those hearty souls were rewarded with a lopsided win by the home club, which ended the season’s first month at 10-17 but played much better baseball after a dismal 1-6 opening week.

A Nationals lineup that scored a grand total of one run through Gray’s first four starts this season enjoyed a productive afternoon against Pirates starter Johan Oviedo, scoring seven runs by the end of the third inning to provide their starter with more than enough cushion.

Gray took over from there. Though he admittedly didn’t have his best stuff, he avoided any significant damage and then finished strong, churning out 105 pitches to complete six innings on a day his team desperately needed length following Saturday’s doubleheader sweep.

"That was definitely promising, to show myself I can do that," he said. "Adversity is going to hit again this year. If I can keep a mental reminder of these sort of outings, it will help guide me through these outings in the future."

Thus did Gray complete arguably the best month of his young career. After surviving a shaky season debut against the Braves, he proceeded to allow no more than two runs in any of his next five starts, finishing with a 1.57 ERA, 27 strikeouts and only one homer surrendered in 28 2/3 innings.

Through six total starts on the season, Gray now owns a 2.67 ERA and 1.278 WHIP, all while reducing both his walk rate and home run rate, his two biggest problem areas last year.

"In anything, especially pitching, it's about consistency," he said. "I'm showing myself I can be consistent over the course of a month. Now, it's the next month. It's May. It's what can I do for the rest of the five months we have ahead of us? ...

"I'm happy April was a successful month, but I don't want to just call it a season because April was good."

Gray took care of the Pirates lineup today despite some shaky command with his slider, even though he still used that pitch to record his first four strikeouts. He needed 66 pitches to get through the top of the third, then retired nine of the last 10 batters he faced on only 39 pitches to complete the top of the sixth, striking out Jack Suwinski and Connor Joe on four-seam fastballs to finish off another impressive outing.

"He started off throwing a lot of breaking balls," Martinez said. "He kind of regrouped after that third inning and attacked with his fastball. That's what I love."

Held to four total runs in 18 innings of baseball Saturday, the Nationals came alive at the plate today against Oviedo. They go a two-out, two-run double from Jeimer Candelario in the bottom of the first. They got a two-out, two-run single from Luis García and a subsequent RBI single from Joey Meneses in the bottom of the second. And then got a two-run double from Victor Robles in the bottom of the third, knocking Oviedo from the game and opening up a comfortable lead to make life easy on Gray.

"Yesterday, we swung the bat really well; we didn't get some luck," Candelario said. "Today, the ball fell. We keep swinging the bat well, and good things are going to happen."

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