SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Opening Day is special. But so is every regular-season game. And every postseason game. It's a lesson Rockies right-hander Jon Gray learned the hard way back in October, and one he hopes will lead to success on Thursday night.In an open secret that manager Bud Black confirmed
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Opening Day is special. But so is every regular-season game. And every postseason game. It's a lesson Rockies right-hander Jon Gray learned the hard way back in October, and one he hopes will lead to success on Thursday night.
In an open secret that manager Bud Black confirmed Tuesday, Gray will make his second season-opening start Thursday (his first coming last year in Milwaukee) against the D-backs at Chase Field -- the spot where the Rockies' season ended last year, as Gray was hit hard in 1 1/3 innings when he gave up four runs and seven hits in the 11-8 loss to the D-backs in the National League Wild Card Game.
Gray had dominated at Chase Field during the regular season -- 2-0 with a 2.77 ERA and 20 strikeouts against one walk in 13 innings -- en route to a 10-4 overall record and a 3.67 ERA in 20 starts. Much of his best work came after he missed 2 1/2 months with a navicular stress fracture of the left foot. But the best way to illustrate the stark contrast in the postseason game is first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who was 0-for-11 with five strikeouts in his career against Gray, before he parked a three-run homer in the first inning.
"There's definitely a chip-on-my-shoulder-type thing," Gray said. "But I can't let that get in the way, either. It's something I really want to do, that I'm really focused on -- that I have to say, 'Hey, treat it just like another game.'
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"[The Wild Card Game] didn't feel like an in-season start, either. It's something I want to reclaim. Get back out there. Show dominance."
As much as last year's final start hurt -- afterward, a disconsolate Gray talked of knowing the game was getting away from him but not knowing how to fix it -- he and Black are drawing on it as a lesson. Black said "it was great that Jon self-admitted" that he didn't handle the start like just another game.
"For players, there are steps of growth to be taken all the time," Black said. "That was one of them last year for Jon. He pitched in a big game. He'll be better off for it moving forward in hopefully his long career."
The final two Spring Training starts suggest that Gray could be ready for a forward leap.
Late in his time on the disabled list last season, Gray began to throw while wearing a stabilizing boot on his left foot, which readied his arm for a quick return to the mound shortly after the boot was removed. However, the understandable urge not to put too much pressure on the foot remained. Even when he was going 7-2 with a 2.44 ERA, 66 strikeouts and 15 walks in 66 1/3 innings over his final 11 starts, Gray never felt the front-side power of his delivery.
After devoting his first four spring starts to experimenting with a different delivery and concentrating on issues such as holding runners, Gray finished his spring with 9 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out 11 and walking one in that span.
Being able to land on his left foot with full force (reminding himself to do so by keeping his left arm in a strong position and feeling the power of the step) has allowed him to find consistency with his two sliders -- one designed to entice hitters to chase the ball in the dirt, the other geared toward weak ground balls.
"It's one of those pitches that really isn't there all the time," Gray said. "But I feel if I do the things I'm supposed to, things I tell myself to -- run through my checklist -- it's going to be a pitch for me in the game. It may not be a 12-13 punch-out pitch, but I know I can use it to get people off my fastball."
Add to that an increasingly effective curveball and occasional changeup, and Gray feels strong. And some of the ideas Gray fooled with may make their way into the regular season. He pulled off a successful pickoff move against the Cubs' Kristopher Bryant in his last Cactus League start, and after setting up with his left shoulder facing the plate, he has toyed with a version of the windup he used in college at Oklahoma.
"It's kind of weird, the more things I tried, the more comfortable I felt," he said. "Even when I went back to my old stuff, I felt super comfortable. And I felt I can take a few miles an hour off this curveball and still throw it for a strike. Or I can throw this one really hard and make it slider-ish. That's given me a lot of freedom to be more creative."
Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter and like his Facebook page.