DENVER -- The finish to Rockies right-hander Jon Gray’s delivery much resembles how a gambler would slap the winning card to the table. It’s, “Boom!” -- followed by a celebratory upward flourish of the hand and arm.
After a changeup too nasty to be thrown by someone coming off a nearly three-month shutdown, Gray’s gesture told teammate Trevor Story to carry wood -- as in go get another bat because that one is kindling. Then Gray worked up in the zone, which was an emphasis, and dominated low with his fastball and his best pitch -- a downward-breaking slider -- against David Dahl.
“I feel like everything's starting to come together for me,” Gray said after his live batting-practice session Monday afternoon at Coors Field. “It's really exciting. It's been a lot of hard work, too, but I got my body in the right place down the slope on the mound. I got the right mechanics going. It makes everything work really well. When my slider's working well, I feel like I'm 10 feet tall.”
Pitchers are supposed to be ahead of hitters. As manager Bud Black put it, “It’s tough to get out of bed and hit a 95 mph fastball.” But Monday was a little more than just natural progression stuff.
Gray, 28, went 11-8 with a 3.84 ERA and 150 strikeouts in 150 innings before a stress fracture in his right foot ended his season in August. Gray arrived at Spring Training eager for the next step but had only one start before baseball shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pitch action Monday resulted from an unusual plan Gray hit upon while hanging in Scottsdale, Ariz., waiting and hoping.
Gray and his wife, Jacklyn, previously spent their offseasons in Denver, but they bought a home in the same Scottsdale subdivision as catcher Tony Wolters. Within an eight-minute drive are Rockies relief pitcher Bryan Shaw, former teammate Chris Rusin (a lefty reliever in Braves camp), and fellow Rockies starters Jeff Hoffman and Kyle Freeland.
“And few others, too,” Gray said.
Plus Rockies bullpen coach Darryl Scott lives in the area and has a portable mound. With partners and resources, Gray could throw all he wanted.
He threw wisely.
“I usually put my bullpens around 30-40 pitches. I only threw off the mound once or twice a week, and it was plenty for me,” Gray said. “With less reps, I was able to focus on it more. I was able to attack that. The reps were cleaner. My practices got a lot better.
“It was pretty eye-opening for me, just seeing the results. I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t working every day to try to get a pitch to break a certain way. I had a certain vision in my mind of what my body needed to do on the mound. I was able to focus on that.”
Right now, these are just a batter vs. hitter session in something called Summer Camp. But Gray has a project -- to throw his four-seam fastball effectively high and to the glove side. Statcast shows that last season he had a heavy arm-side tendency. Working high to the glove side could foster greater deception.
“At first, when I started pitching up a few years ago, I would go up and in to almost everybody,” Gray said. “I feel comfortable going up and away to people. My breaking ball plays off that. It’s really tough when you show someone 96 up in the zone and then you drop a curveball to the bottom of the zone. It’s really cool to put certain combos together and know why it works.”
Gray and right-hander German Márquez -- the Rockies' best pitcher last season (12-5, 4.76 ERA, 175 strikeouts) before right arm inflammation ended his season at 174 innings -- were bright spots in the Rockies’ 71-91 season. They are expected to be at the forefront if the Rockies return to contention.
Gray is the first pitcher in club history to earn double-figure wins for four straight years, but it hasn’t been smooth. He had a 5.12 ERA in 31 starts in 2018 but recovered last season. Pitching coach Steve Foster, who called Gray’s pitches “filthy” on Monday, sees Gray matching knowledge with talent.
“Jon had a great year. He finished strong before he broke his foot,” Foster said. “In his last outing against the Marlins, he punched out seven and threw a shutout for eight innings.”
Gray said he tries to temper his excitement because the pandemic leaves uncertainty about what’s ahead.
“I really want to be on the field,” he said. “I understand if things happen. It'd be a shame. This year would be something to build off. I could even take it a step further next year.”