Jon Gray has taken a major step forward.
The overall struggle of the Rockies has obscured what has been accomplished by Gray, who many just throw into the pot with the rest of the rotation in proclaiming it to be a disappointment so far this season.
And the rotation has not met expectations – for sure – but Gray has been a bright spot, hidden in the bleak results of the team.
Has he been perfect? No.
Has every game he pitched been cause for celebration? No.
But in breaking down his efforts, there is plenty of reason to embrace his steady emergence into an eventually dominant big-league starting pitcher.
His growth was underscored in the Rockies 9-3 victory at Pittsburgh on Friday night.
Was it spotless? No. Few starts are spotless in baseball. What it was, however, was a quick look at an overall evolution of Gray’s mental approach to the game, and it was never more evident than when Pirates first baseman Josh Bell deposited a Gray fastball into the Allegheny River behind the right field wall at PNC Park – only the fifth ball to ever land directly in the water, the second off the bat of Bell.
Unlike a year ago when something wrong and Gray would unravel, he has regained his composure in those instances this year and given the Rockies a chance to win each time out.
On Wednesday night, he regained his composure and paved the way for the Rockies to win their second game in a row from the Pirates, unlike moments last year which come to mind, including a June 17 unraveling in Texas. Gray allowed three hits and one run in the first five innings of that game, carrying a 5-1 lead into the sixth, but then ...
Gray didn't retire a batter in the sixth, but he did allow five runs in what evolved into a 13-12 loss. Gray gave up hits. He was betrayed by errors. But most of all he fell into the male driver syndrome, that moment the wife questions whether the husband knows the directions to their destination. He assures that he does, and drives faster, and gets more lost.
That was Jon Gray, circa 2018.
Not any more.
He has embraced the Pedro Astacio mentality of how to be a successful pitcher.
"You don't give up the next run," said Astacio. "You can't do anything about the run you gave up. You have to focus on not allowing the next run."
With the guidance of pitching coach Steve Foster, bullpen coach Darren Holmes and Doug Chadwick, the Rockies minor-league mental skills coach, Gray seems to have embraced the philosophy, although in a different mode.
That's why after the bomb that Josh Bell delivered, Gray stepped to the back of the mound, looked toward center field and focused on the American flag.
“If things get too fast, find the flagpole, look at that, remember where you are, what you’re doing,” Gray said. “There’s always going to be one, so I find the flagpole.”
Easier said than done.
The results are early but they are promising.
Gray, who gave up three or more runs in an inning 14 times last year (13 of them in the 12 starts he made that the Rockies lost), has been the victim of a three-run inning once in 10 starts this year.
Yes, he is only 4-4 and the Rockies 5-5 in his starts.
But there are some things Gray can't control. And that has been the biggest lesson he has learned.
He has not allowed more than three runs in any inning. And continues to get better. He is 3-1 in his last five starts.
And his confidence in his approach was underscored in Bell's second at-bat on Wednesday. He struck out Bell on three pitches, the last of which was a curveball that is becoming more a part of his aresnal after an initial reluctance to add the pitch.
“It was another at-bat, another inning until I got to two strikes,” Gray said. “Then it was, ‘I’m gonna put you away. I’m not going to make any mistakes here.’”
And to be honest, this season he rarely has.