No-no without top velo? Gray gives it a go

Righty goes heavy on sliders, holds D-backs hitless until seventh inning

April 9th, 2021

DENVER -- Last year, Rockies right-hander couldn’t reach his top-end velocity and was simply lost. Well, his hardest fastball didn’t show up Thursday afternoon against the D-backs, but Gray showed he has figured a route to success without it.

Gray’s fastball averaged 92.8 mph -- according to Statcast, the lowest of his 125 career appearances. Yet he relied on his slider and other secondary pitches to hold the D-backs hitless for the first six innings, and the Rockies won, 7-3, to take two of three games in the series at Coors Field.

The Rockies went 3-4 in their season-opening homestand.

Gray gave up one run on two hits over 6 2/3 innings. He struck out five. The first of those K’s -- D-backs pitcher Merrill Kelly in the third inning -- made Gray the fifth pitcher to reach 700 strikeouts with the Rockies. Gray joined , , and on that list.

Instead of spiraling into frustration and ineffectiveness -- the way he did while going 2-4 with a 6.69 ERA last year before finishing the year on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation -- Gray went to his slider and changeup to keep the D-backs off balance.

“I’m really thankful to be in that position,” Gray said. “Because a couple years ago, I don’t think I was that kind of guy that could mix to save himself when his stuff isn’t great.

“I actually woke up feeling pretty terrible today. I didn’t feel good in my bullpen. I could just tell it was a day when I wasn’t going to be able to throw very hard. In the bullpen, the whole time I was yanking balls left, my first 20 pitches or so.”

Gray topped out at 94.7 mph early but couldn’t command it. So he went another way. Four walks issued by Gray were the closest the D-backs could muster to a rally until the seventh inning, when David Peralta broke up the no-hit bid with a leadoff triple.

“I mentioned to Jon after the game that I thought he pitched -- he didn’t throw,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “And that’s where guys with his service time, guys who’ve been around, understand that concept of pitching.”

Gray was more electric in his first start this season, on Saturday when he held the Dodgers scoreless for his first five innings and had to leave one batter into the sixth with full-body cramps that were blamed on an ill-conceived pregame meal. He ate better Wednesday.

“I had a banana peanut butter sandwich -- it was great,” he said. “I drank plenty of liquids, even ate a little snack in the dugout. So I think we took care of that problem.”

Properly fueled, Gray was impressive. His approach fit a Rockies pattern against the D-backs. In all three games during the series, Colorado's starter threw more breaking pitches than fastballs. For Gray, it was just the ninth time in his career he threw fewer fastballs than breaking pitches.

leaned on a mix of sliders and curveballs to hold the D-backs to three runs in six innings in the series opener Tuesday. threw 43 sliders to 42 fastballs over eight scoreless innings on Wednesday.

Gray happily succeeded Thursday with 46 sliders against 37 of his less-than-top-velocity heaters, plus an effective changeup.

Black is happy his pitchers can adhere to a scouting report.

In 2017, when the Rockies unexpectedly made the postseason in Black’s first season as manager, their starters relied on fastballs more than all teams but two. But the pitchers have taken time to become comfortable with secondary pitches and have become students of advanced information to understand what works. 

“The early part of my tenure here, we had some guys who were young, who maybe weren't totally finished off as big league pitchers,” Black said. “We’ve got to go back to the growth of the player and his understanding of what he has to do to continue to get better. I think our pitching coaches over the years have done a great job with these guys.”

Gray said in part because he was busy adjusting to what he could do, he wasn’t aware the D-backs were hitless until made a barehand pickup and throw to retire Tim Locastro leading off the sixth.

“I didn't feel as good this time as last,” Gray said. “But that has made me feel very confident to be able to work through it and use other things. … I think that’s showing a little bit of growth.”