The top of the first inning of the Colorado Rockies matchup with the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday lasted four pitches. This inning foretold what would be Jon Gray’s best performance of 2019.
Gray pitched 6 ⅔ shutout innings, allowed two hits, three walks and struck out seven Blue Jay batters in the Rockies 4-2 victory. He was taken out of the game in the seventh inning after walking two straight batters with a flare-up (precursor to blister) that had previously plagued his right middle finger on his throwing hand.
The flare-up on his finger bothered him in the lead up to Saturday's game, but it wasn’t a factor until late in the sixth inning.
“I really took care of it this week, limiting my throwing and just making sure it was gonna hold up today,” Gray said. “I just wanted to go until it didn't.”
The game lasted only 2 hrs 29 minutes in large part because of Gray’s efficiency at the mound. The 27-year-old did a lot of things well in what he considered to be one of the best starts of his career.
Gray mixed pitches and speeds well, kept the ball on the ground and typically ended at-bat’s early. In particular, it was a deadly fastball, slider and curveball combination that Gray relied on. He kept his fastball “up in the zone” which he felt opened up opportunities for his slider and curveball. On the evening, Gray only threw 87 pitches, with 53 being strikes.
“It (pitching) was in control from start to finish tonight,” Gray said. “Not all the times it's like that. Usually, you run into a lot of trouble’s somewhere in there, but for the most part, it worked really, really good.”
Gray added: “I felt like I was in a good rhythm. I'm just keeping things simple with my delivery and just focusing on making one pitch at a time, and the results have been good.”
Manager Bud Black was thrilled by the start and the consistency that it brought to his starting rotation.
“The results were great,” Black said. “He kept the momentum that we had in the first inning all the way through the game, so (it was a) great game for Jon.”
Black added: “The delivery was repeated. The arm slot, the release point, to finish…everything was consistent all night long.”
Gray was quick to credit a great defensive effort from his teammates and the offense for making his job easier.
“That three or four run lead early in the night was really nice because I was able to sit back and kind of pitch my game,” Gray said. “It was nice to be able to pitch like that.”
Gray hasn’t always had that same consistency over his five seasons with the Rockies, but in 2019 he is trending in the right direction. Gray’s record is 5-4 on the season, but four of those five victories have come in his last eight games and more importantly, the Rockies are 7-2 in Gray’s last nine starts.
Following Saturday's victory, his ERA for the 2019 season dropped to 4.11.
He may not have been credited with victories in each of those games, but having Jon Gray on the mound has been highly effective for the Rockies over the last month and a half.
The performance is the second solid outing in a row by the Rockies starting pitching rotation after German Marquez surrendered two runs in seven innings on Friday. Both performances have come after Opening Day starter, Kyle Freeland, was optioned to Triple-A following recent struggles.
Gray, the former third overall pick in the 2013 draft, has had flashes of star quality over his five seasons with the Rockies. He possesses power and command, attributes desired by all pitchers. He struck out 16 batters in one game and was considered the team’s ace during the 2017 season while going 10-4. The Rockies won 87 games, and Gray started in the NL Wild Card game. He was the Opening Day pitcher in 2018, but struggled at times and was inconsistent and, like Freeland this year, spent time in Triple-A (two games).
Those struggles are in the rearview mirror right now as Gray continues to improve this season. He thinks that each game is “starting to feel more natural,” and that he is feeling more and more like himself. This renewed confidence bodes well for the Rockies, who know how dangerous Gray can be at his best.
“I feel super confident right now,” Gray said. I used to kind of get a little worried about the what-ifs, but now, I know that I'm in control. I know that it's all up to me to make a good pitch and I have to live with that.”
He plans on using his experience going through slumps to reach out and help Freeland. Gray isn’t worried in the slightest about his teammate. He knows that Freeland will turn it around.
“That's a guy I'm not worried about. He's a different animal. Every pitcher is going to run into the point where you think you don't belong, and that's a guy that does,” Gray said. “He just needs to feel like himself for a little bit. That's kind of what I had to do, and he's gonna be just fine.”
Even if Kyle Freeland can’t turn his season around, a 1-2 punch of Marquez and Gray is more than formidable. The Rockies are one of the hottest teams in baseball having won seven straight, but their current offensive output is likely not sustainable. Great pitching from Jon Gray is...and that bodes well for a franchise with playoff aspirations.