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Gray eager to prove he can handle big games

Rockies righty has worked to understand what makes his pitches effective
@harding_at_mlb
March 23, 2019

As part of MLB.com's Opening Day coverage, we are examining various aspects of each team. Today: The Great Unknown. SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There is a narrative about Rockies right-hander Jon Gray that he can't perform in big games. Remind him of it, and he belts a brief and dismissive laugh.

As part of MLB.com's Opening Day coverage, we are examining various aspects of each team. Today: The Great Unknown.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There is a narrative about Rockies right-hander Jon Gray that he can't perform in big games. Remind him of it, and he belts a brief and dismissive laugh.

“I think it’s hilarious,” Gray said. “I don’t know why the whole big thing comes out. I guess I can pinpoint it to one game. But I’ve pitched in plenty of big games and done well. So I don’t understand what that’s all about.”

Can’t handle the big game is a popular meme in the grand tradition of labeling athletes and, as Gray has found, it doesn’t take much to be stamped. In 89 regular-season starts over three-plus seasons in the Majors, Gray has accumulated a 32-25 record, a 4.65 ERA -- but also a reputation based on three starts, two in the regular season and one in the postseason.

But the beauty of sports is that a narrative a player disagrees with can serve as valuable motivation. Gray believes a solid physical plan, improvements in his technique and an increase in knowledge of his craft can deliver stardom, but the only way to shake a reputation is to deliver in a big game.

And that's not so bad.

“If it makes people feel comfortable with them having an answer, they can say what they want,” Gray said. “But if you want to get down to the truth of it, it’s being strong, being who I am and making the pitches I can.

“I’m just excited this year that I get to prove it. I’m just waiting for an opportunity.”

Three games drive the boilerplate:

• His lone postseason start -- the 2017 National League Wild Card Game, when he gave up four runs on seven hits and lasted just 1 1/3 innings at Arizona, after dominating previously at Chase Field.

• Last Opening Day, again at Chase -- six hits and three runs in four innings of an 8-2 loss -- in what was seen as an indication that he wasn’t over the postseason debacle.

• Last Sept. 29 at Coors Field, the Nationals chased Gray after scoring five runs on seven hits in two innings pitched. The Rockies’ eventual 12-2 loss plunged them into a Game 163 against the Dodgers for the NL West title. The Rockies lost, and Gray was left off the postseason roster.

The Nats game ended a season that saw Gray slump to the point that he was optioned to Triple-A Albuquerque briefly in late June for two starts. He finished 12-9 with 183 strikeouts in 172 1/3 innings, but also with a 5.12 ERA.

Gray addressed his tangible issues.

An improved physical program helped counteract a 20-pound weight loss last season, and a trip to the Driveline facility near Seattle helped him learn how his pitches worked and when something goes wrong, why.

All isn’t perfect. Gray has a solid 2.55 ERA with 22 strikeouts to one walk in five Cactus League starts, but acknowledges that his stuff hasn’t been there every game, and pitching from the stretch is a work in progress.

Gray agrees there is a psychological/mental composure component.

On June 17 at Texas, Gray struck out nine in the first five innings and had a 5-1 lead, but the Rockies committed two errors in the sixth and in short order Gray left the mound with six runs and no outs. Two starts later, Gray blew an early lead at San Francisco and exhibited off-putting body language. He was sent to Albuquerque the next day.

For much of his career, he has succeeded on talent, but didn’t have full understanding of what made him good. That’s fine, until things go wrong. Then not having answers can lead to blowups. Knowledge now is power not to feel powerless.

“I have the fix to everything that could go wrong,” Gray said. “All the stupid stuff I do, whether it’s poor sliders or leaving fastballs up, it’s something I can fix. If I find it out early, I can fix it.”

Gray can play select-a-game, too. How about a May 1 start at Wrigley Field – seven innings, three hits, all after the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo opened the game with a home run.

“A lot of games that take toughness to get through them get overlooked,” Gray said. “Playing the Cubs last season at Wrigley, I gave up a home run on the first pitch of that game on a 93 mph pitch, up into the wind. That’s a good lineup. If that happens to a weak pitcher, they’re probably going to fold. But I’m always going to fight back, I’m going to fight back and show you who’s the real winner here.

“That’s always within me. That’s always going to be there.”

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb and like his Facebook page.