Jon Gray has arrived. The promise of being a dominating big-league pitcher that led the Rockies to make him the third player selected in the 2013 first-year player draft is becoming a reality.
He has had his moments the past three years, but they were punctuated by frustrations of those games where Gray’s desire to excel would overcome the “one-pitch-at-a-time mentality” necessary for a pitcher to work his way through jams.
So far, however, so good this year, underscored by the six shutout innings he put up in the Rockies 4-2 victory against the Phillies at Coors Field on Sunday afternoon. He allowed only one hit, but extended pitch counts and three errors led to him throwing 97 pitches to get those 18 outs.
It was the type of afternoon that a year ago would turn into disappointment for Gray and the Rockies.
But that was then. This is now.
This is Gray not allowing a small distraction become a big inning for the opposition. It’s Gray avoiding those days like last summer in Texas when he dominated the Rangers for five innings but never got an out while giving up five runs in the sixth inning that afternoon.
This is what the Rockies have envisioned ever since that day they drafted Gray.
“He looks so strong mentally, so confident,” said right fielder Charlie Blackmon. “He knew what he needed to do. He didn’t care what people think. He was going out to do his thing to win a game for his team.”
And he did. He breezed through the first three innings, retiring nine of the first 10 Phillies he faced. But then came the first of two big tests. Two errors by second baseman Garrett Hampson, and a Maikel Franco two-out double put Phillies on second and third with two out. Gray got Roman Quinn to fly to center and end the threat.
Then, in the fifth, with one out, he walked the No. 8 hitter, catcher Andrew Knapp, and pitcher Jerad Eickoff. He, however, got Andrew McCutchen to fly to left, and struck out Cesar Hernandez.
“He has the stuff,” said Rockies center fielder Ian Desmond. “It’s a maturity process that all guys go through. He is going to hit the curve, and we see that happening right now. He has good stuff and he understands how to use it.”
The promise is becoming reality.
“After these outings, when I get an out, I am taking more pride in those situations that arise,” said Gray. “I feel a lot better. I have a lot of room to grow. But I feel a lot stronger. I feel my pitches have meeting. I’m out there competing now.”
And it shows.
There were moments on Sunday where the game would have gotten away from the Jon Gray of the past, the one who would get into a tough situation and try too hard to be too good and have things get away from him. Remember, a year ago the Rockies were 18-13 in Gray’s 31 starts. He had a 3.05 ERA in those 18 games the team won compared to 9.05 in the 13 games the Rockies lost.
“I had to not get angry, but to settle down, take a deep breath and get back to what I am capable of doing,” he said.
The approach was tested in the fifth inning. A close call went against him for ball four to Eickhoff.
“I let it show a little bit,” said Gray. “I shouldn’t have, but I was pretty fired up.”
However, instead of racing back on the mound and throwing a pitch, Gray walked behind the mound, took a deep breath and refocused.
“We saw some signs in spring training that he was in a good place, and I think these starts are an indication how he is physically and mentally,” said manager Bud Black. “He feels good about himself. He feels good about his delivery. He has confidence when he gets in a game that he can get out of it.
“This season has (only) been five starts and he has done a good job of getting out of situation with minimal damage.”
How good? Well, in the five starts he has yet to allow more than two runs in an inning. A year ago, he suffered through 14 innings of three or more runs – 13 of them in those 13 games he started and the Rockies lost.
Gray has had his challenges this year, but he has won that battle, even if he didn’t win those games. He suffered a loss in his season debut, 3-0 at Tampa, and two starts later dropped a 1-0 decision. Neither time did he implode, keeping the Rockies in the game.
It’s a step he had to take to reach the potential the Rockies envisioned when he was drafted.