DENVER -- Too often when Rockies pitcher Jon Gray has had hitters where he wanted them this season, he was the one who arrived in a bad place.In Gray's last two starts -- losses at home to the Padres and on the road to the Nationals -- limited but galling
DENVER -- Too often when Rockies pitcher Jon Gray has had hitters where he wanted them this season, he was the one who arrived in a bad place.
In Gray's last two starts -- losses at home to the Padres and on the road to the Nationals -- limited but galling mistakes were the difference between a gem and a dud. But Gray (1-3, 6.23 ERA), who will face the Cubs on Friday night at Coors Field, believes he is just as close to overcoming his obstacles.
"It's not like I'm completely lost and don't know what I'm doing," Gray said. "I'm doing a lot of really good and very small really bad. But the really bad is costing me. That's the most frustrating part."
The hope is the suffering will lead to learning, then production like before -- 7-3, 2.64 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 78 1/3 innings over his final 13 starts last season; 7-4, 2.44 in his final 11 starts of his 2016 rookie year.
"I think he will get there, because he's talented," Rockies manager Bud Black said. "There's an understanding that is becoming apparent to Jon when it's in front of him, when those moments are in front of him. That is a critical point of all this. He knows at these moments he has to heighten the awareness of making pitches."
The last two rough starts -- 10 hits and five runs in five innings against the Padres at Coors Field on April 9, and five runs on eight hits in 5 2/3 innings at Washington on Saturday -- resembled his seven scoreless innings with seven strikeouts in a 5-2 victory over the Padres at Petco Park on April 4.
But the exceptions were striking.
Against the Padres at Coors, the home runs he surrendered on 0-1 pitches -- a three-run shot by pitcher Clayton Richard and Carlos Asuaje's only homer of the year -- highlighted a couple statistical issues:
• When a plate appearance finishes with Gray ahead in the count, he is giving up a whopping .417 batting average (15-for-36) with two home runs, two doubles and a triple for a .694 slugging percentage. Overall in the Majors through Thursday, hitters were managing just a .195 average with the pitcher ahead.
• Gray's two-out average against is .323 and includes all three homers and three of the seven total extra-base hits.
But the downfall of his performance against the Nats possibly illustrates the root of the problem.
Trailing, 3-2, in his matchup with Nationals ace Matt Scherzer with one out in the sixth, Gray's 2-2 slider to Moises Sierra simply hovered over the plate and became a two-run double. That was the end of Gray's outing.
In his disappointed self-evaluation the next day, Gray said he strayed from a mental checklist before each pitch that includes a strong stride, staying in line with his target and throwing through the target rather than to it. Instead, he strived for added nastiness -- and let his thoughts drift to the hitter, whom he doesn't control.
"I'm trying to get the guy to swing and believe it's going to be a fastball," Gray said. "But when you tense up and really throw, you're trying harder but throwing the ball higher, and it gives the guy a chance."
"If I would have located the slider to Sierra the other day, down and away, we would have won.
Catcher Tony Wolters smiled when relayed Gray's assessment.
"He doesn't shrink away," Wolters said. "He likes those big moments. He's good in those big moments. It's just that sometimes he ramps himself up, instead of, 'OK, it's just like the second pitch of the first inning. Easy. Just relax and execute pitches.' That's why I'm not worried about him. No one's worried about him."
Black hopes experience helps Gray consistently live up to the promise he has faced since being selected third overall out of the University of Oklahoma in 2013.
"I don't think it's going to be one moment that clicks," Black said. "It's going to be a continuation of experience and continuation of pitching in the big leagues, and knowing how to work his way through a game from start to finish when there are hurdles."
Gray has beaten struggles before, and plans to thrive again.
"I remember feeling just like this in Double-A at one time," Gray said. "But I always try to look forward and find the solution. I know I'll get there. I've got to keep believing in my abilities. I know that it's in there."
Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter and like his Facebook page.