Rockies right-hander Jon Gray’s hardest and liveliest fastball arrived in the first inning Wednesday night, so he did all he could to wrap himself in the feeling and not let it go.
Between innings, pitchers tend to sit, often in a jacket no matter the weather. (Well, maybe not on a 107-degree night in Phoenix, but you get the idea.) Gray, however, stood in the dugout, bare-armed, sometimes even pacing, as if hardly being able to wait to climb back to the mound.
More than a mile an hour above his season average, with movement, Gray threw his fastball with conviction and let the other pitches play off it for six three-hit innings as the Rockies climbed back above .500 with an 8-7 victory over the D-backs at Chase Field.
“To me, that’s the best stuff that Jon has had all year,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “I saw the velocity tick up. I saw some 95s, a bunch of 96s, I think I might have seen 97, which we haven’t seen this year. So that’s a good sign for Jon.
“The slider was better, and I just thought the overall intent of aggressiveness was better. His delivery looked a little smoother to me.”
Gray and the Rockies hope this week represents true momentum. The Rockies (16-15) believe a tumble from 11-3 to sub-.500 is behind them, especially after three straight wins over the D-backs in a series that ends Thursday afternoon.
And Gray showed indications he is ready to break a maddening up-and-down recent pattern -- eight runs and 11 hits against in 3 1/3 innings against the D-backs on Aug. 10; seven innings, three runs, three hits and seven strikeouts against the Rangers on Aug. 16; and four runs and seven hits in a 3 2/3-inning toil in a loss to the Dodgers on Saturday night.
But when Gray rolls, it can last. He finished the 2017 regular season with 13 starts of three or fewer runs, and in ‘19, after an inconsistent beginning of the season, posted a 3.35 ERA from May 22 to season’s end.
The Rockies would like to see Gray have another such run, with Wednesday representing the beginning of the second half of the 60-game season.
“I know that during the game, Jon, in between innings, was clear-thinking,” Black said. “He and [catcher Drew Butera] worked great together. The game plan was executed. Going into his next start, he’s in a good spot.”
The Dodgers game saw Gray try to pitch with neither his fastball nor his slider, and watch his changeup get pounded. Against the D-backs, however, a four-seam fastball that had averaged 93.7 mph this season (low for him, and it bothered him at times) averaged 94.9. The velocity was there from the first hitter, and held throughout.
“When he struck out [Kole] Calhoun in the first inning, I think that gave him a little confidence,” Black said. “From there, he set sail.”
Gray actually employed the slider a bit more, 30 times to 28 fastballs. But all emanated from the heater. Gray didn’t give up a hit until Starling Marte and David Peralta singled to open the fourth, when the D-backs scored their only run against him. Gray finished with five strikeouts and three walks.
Before things turned strange in the eighth and ninth -- with Yency Almonte, Tyler Kinley and Jairo Díaz taking bites with mixed success before Jeff Hoffman struck out Nick Ahmed to end it -- Gray’s pitching was the difference. Between Nolan Arenado’s two-run first-inning double and the eighth, the Rockies had runners in scoring position in five different frames and managed only one run in the sixth.
In that eighth inning, they rallied for five runs on a Sam Hilliard leadoff homer and a Charlie Blackmon grand slam.
“Nobody wants to leave those baserunners out there, especially when you have that opportunity to extend the lead or take the lead, but we did a good job of battling,” said Blackmon, whose slam -- his fourth homer of the season -- came on a 2-0 fastball from righty Riley Smith, who was making his Major League debut. “Jonny Gray did a great job. He pitched so well.
“I felt like he was very in control. He never looked like his emotions got the best of him. If he made a mistake, you wouldn’t have known it.”