Gray focused on control after walks foil latest outing

June 7th, 2024

ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals ace prides himself on usually not walking high numbers of batters, so when he surrendered four passes on Thursday -- including three of them in the game-deciding fifth inning -- he used some blunt, blue language to describe his performance.

However, the rare walk issue ranks second on his list of concerns following the Cardinals' 3-2 loss to a Rockies team that finally found a way to end its five-game slide.

“It’s a trend that’s trending in the wrong direction,” Gray said following his second poor start in six nights for a Cardinals club that had grown accustomed to his early-season excellence. “I’ve got to come in and come up with a plan going forward and get back on track.”

Once 7-2 with a sub-3.00 ERA and possibly on his way to earning a start in the All-Star Game, Gray has been troubled of late by mechanical timing issues, control woes and struggles he never saw coming. On Thursday, he was unnerved by a questionable ball/strike call on a 2-2 pitch in the second inning -- an eventual walk that came around to score. Then, after seemingly steadying himself with four straight strikeouts over two innings, the game got away from him because of three walks, three stolen bases and two wild pitches that allowed Colorado to push its lead to 3-0.

Upon further review, Gray feels that he’s gotten away from attacking hitters early in counts and he’s been working too often on the edges of the plate instead of challenging them with his best pitches.

“I feel like I’ve got to go back and start from the beginning and get back to the basics,” said Gray, who allowed just two hits, but was undone by the walks and wildness. “Force contact early for strikes one. Force guys to put the ball in play early and get back into the middle of the plate and not try to be too fine. Just get back to the middle of the plate.

“Everything seems to be more in my favor when I’m getting ahead of guys early. The best way I’ve done that in the past is shooting right down the middle of the plate. I do feel like over the past couple of weeks we’ve been going to the edges more early. … I think I’ve got to get back to the middle of the plate and not trying to be too fine early in counts. That could be a good starting point for me.”

Fresh off a 4-5 record over their longest road trip of the season, the Cardinals were coming home and hoping to make up some ground in the NL Central where they trail the Brewers and Cubs. After all, Gray had been 4-1 record with a 0.93 ERA in five starts at Busch Stadium and was facing a team that had been outscored 37-12 in their five-game losing streak.

However, the Cards fell flat when they left 11 runners on base and they were just 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position. Paul Goldschmidt hit a ball that left the bat at 106.8 mph only to die at the wall and Nolan Gorman’s 100.7 mph drive also came up just short consecutively in the seventh inning. The Cards also lost a potential run in the fifth inning when converted first baseman Michael Toglia reached high above the wall in right field and robbed a home run from veteran slugger Matt Carpenter.

“It’s a different game when those opportunities go our way,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “I think out at bats could have been better early, but we also took some good at bats that didn’t go our way and we had nothing to show for them.”

Gray, who has been every bit the ace the Cardinals sought when they signed him to a three-year, $75 million free-agent contract in November, certainly had nothing to show for his shortest outing.

During his postgame review of all that went wrong on Thursday, Gray pointed to a three-game stretch from 2023 when he walked 10 batters -- one that forced him into reevaluating his plan and getting back to the basics. He turned that season around by walking just one batter over his next four starts and allowing just 11 free passes over his final 11 starts -- a finish that allowed him to be American League Cy Young runner-up.

“I remember going through this last year when I went through a [three]-start stretch where I just continued to walk people,” he said. “The biggest jump from that was a mindset swap to be aggressive through the middle of the plate. I think that’s where I’ve got to get back to.”