PHOENIX, Az. – The situation could not have been better. Jon Gray was in a jam. With two out in the third, he saw a two-run lead turn into a tie game, giving up an RBI-double single to Lorenzo Cain, and RBI-single to Christian Yelich.
And then. …
Gray regrouped. The Rockies suffered a 5-4 loss to the Brewers, but when Wade Davis took over for Gray in the bottom of the sixth, the Rockies had a 3-2 lead, and Gray had taken a step toward erasing the demons of the past. He had faced a tough situation and responded with a dominant effort in his final 2 1/3 innings of work.
“Everyday is a test for Jon, and the more experience he gets, he starts to handle the situations,” said Black. “He became better after that. That’s a good experience for him.”
How much better? He came back to strike out Ryan Braun on three pitches to end the third, and recorded strikeouts for four of the final six outs he registered, including sandwiching strikeouts of left-handed hitters Travis Shaw and Eric Thames around a one-out Mike Moustakas one-out double in the fourth.
He put the final statement on his appearance with a three-pitch strikeout of Cain to end the fifth.
“I had to calm myself down and take a few steps back,” said Gray. “I messed up a few pitches. I had to take a beep breath. … That’s the situation I want like to happen and quickly get out of.”
That’s the kind of situation that has been a problem for Gray. It’s where he has let a good game turn into a mess. It’s the roadblock that has kept him from simply overpowering other teams. He has dealt with it well this spring, compiling a 2.55 ERA in 5 starts, striking out 22 and walking one with 17 2/3 innings.
“He is in a good place,” said Black.
It is what the Rockies envision Gray being able to do, stepping up to join with Kyle Freeland and German Marquez to give them three dominating pitchers in the rotation.
There are plenty of signs of his ability to do it.
It’s the consistency that has been missing.
A year ago, he was 12-9, and the Rockies were 18-13 in his 31 starts. When he dominated, he won, compiling a 3.05 ERA in the 18 Rockies victories that he started. In the 13 losses, something would go wrong, and he couldn’t stop the opposing onslaught, compiling a 9.05 ERA.
That’s why a spring game like Saturday is more significant than merely a spring training game. It’s a chance for Gray to respond to the challenge. He knows he “made a bad pitch to Cain in the third,” but he also knows that didn’t turn into a bad outing, and when he faced Cain two innings later, he simply overpowered the Brewers center fielder.
“That’s the situation I am hoping for,” he said. “I have to show (to himself) that I can handle that.”
And the way Gray handled it is what the Rockies are hoping for from Gray.
He was the third pick in the 2013 draft for a reason – he has an overpowering fastball, solid slider, ability to change speeds – and he has added to the repertoire with a curveball that he continues to gain confidence in the more he uses it in key situations.
“Jon had command of his fastball and has plenty of velocity,” said Black. “If you have command of your fastball in your repertoire, any pitcher can be successful.”
It’s the mental challenge, however, that Gray has to command, and he knows it.
Never was it more evident for Gray than in a start at Texas on June 17 last season when he went into the sixth inning with a 5-1 lead. He failed to retire a batter while being charged with five runs in the sixth inning.
Consider that in the 13 games he started, and the Rockies lost last season he allowed three or more runs in 13 innings, a total of 46 runs. In the other 44 2/3 innings of those games he allowed only 17. In the 18 games he started, and the Rockies won, however, he allowed three runs only once in 114 2/3 innings.
A successful pitcher has short-term memory.
“You don’t like giving up runs, but you can’t let it frustrate you when you give one up,” said Gray. “Once the run has scored you have no control over that, but you can control what the next batter does. You can’t control what happened.”
It’s the hurdle Gray is working on crossing.