Gray continues to show mental toughness

Righty overcomes early adversity as Rox outslug Bucs

May 23rd, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- Most of PNC Park “ooh’ed” and “aah’ed” at the ball floating in the Allegheny River, courtesy of the long ball off the bat of the Pirates’ Josh Bell. But Rockies pitcher Jon Gray blocked it all out and briefly peered at the American flag behind the bullpens in left-center.

The season hasn’t always gone swimmingly for Gray, though Wednesday night did. He gave up just three runs and seven hits in seven innings while fanning seven in a 9-3 win, the Rockies’ second straight.

Remember last year, when Gray’s performance regularly deteriorated at the appearance of a home run, a bad pitch or a mishap beyond his control? It’s not so much that way anymore.

In addition to a well-chronicled trip to Driveline in suburban Seattle for high-tech analysis to help him understand his pitches, good and bad, Gray decided to buy in to sports psychology.

That’s where Old Glory comes in.

“If things get too fast, find the flagpole, look at that, remember where you are, what you’re doing,” Gray said. “There’s always going to be one, so I find the flagpole.”

It’s not foolproof. In his previous start, Gray felt plate umpire Angel Hernandez missed three pitches that forced a walk to Phillies pitcher Cole Irvin. After a peek at the pole, however, Andrew McCutchen homered to ruin a nine-strikeout night, and Gray never regained his footing. But it’s definite and clear.

Gray’s numbers, start to start, have been variable, but he has gone at least six innings in seven of his 10 starts. On Wednesday, Gray averaged 97.1 mph on his four-seam fastball -- something he hadn’t done in two years, according to Statcast.

“Jon did a real good job of repeating his delivery all night long, held his fastball,” Colorado manager Bud Black said. “You saw some 97s in the seventh. He stayed within himself.”

On Wednesday night, Gray’s fix wasn’t immediate.

After Bell’s homer on a hanging changeup cut his lead to 3-1, Gray gave up two-out hits to Elias Diaz and Kevin Newman -- an RBI double -- to see his lead shrink to 3-2. But from there, Gray (4-4, 4.62 ERA) held the Pirates to one run the rest of this outing, and he even delivered a single and drew a walk offensively. Gray followed up German Marquez’s eight strong innings in Tuesday’s 5-0 victory over the Bucs to give the Rockies consecutive outings of at least seven innings for the first time this season.

Gray also avenged the homer by striking out Bell on three pitches in the fourth -- the last on a nasty curve.

“It was another at-bat, another inning until I got to two strikes,” Gray said. “Then it was, ‘I’m gonna put you away. I’m not going to make any mistakes here.’”

Looking to the flag isn’t the only way that Gray is trying to push his mind over messy matters.

Last season, Gray went 12-9, but with a 5.12 ERA and enough red-flag games that he didn’t make Colorado's postseason roster in each of the first two rounds. But even before it was over, he remembered that he felt former club sports psychology consultant Rick Perea was valuable. Gray had let the calming breathing techniques Perea instilled in him slip away.

After the season, Gray reached out to Doug Chadwick, listed as mental skills coordinator on the Rockies’ Minor League side.

Chadwick came up with an entertaining technique to help on game days.

“I had Doug make me an audio track,” Gray said. “It’s got all my information of what I do on a start day. We sent it off to a narrator and he narrated my start day and how it goes. I have no idea who it was. It’s like an older man’s voice -- not, like, Morgan Freeman, but up that alley.”

Gray hasn’t used it in the last couple of weeks, saying, “It’s in my head now.” Gray at first used a heartbeat sensor on his ear to make sure he stayed calm. Now, like the tape, he said, “I’ll want to go back to it if I feel kind of funny.”

Had Freeman called Wednesday’s game, he’d have boomed out calls on two three-run homers -- by Daniel Murphy in the first inning and Tony Wolters in the third.

For Wolters, it was his first in 127 at-bats dating to last season. Also, 10 Colorado players had hits, something that hadn’t happened in a road game since May 24, 2017, at Philadelphia.

Gray said that the company that makes the sensor is working on something that can be worn during bullpen sessions. Games may not be far away.

But all Gray had after Bell’s monster blast was the flag.

“It could be a pitch I thought was a strike that I get balled on, or something frustrating like an infield swinging bunt and maybe a couple more pitches that didn’t go my way,” Gray said. “Before things go terrible, it’s time to step off, look at the flagpole, remember what you’re doing, think of what’s the best thing to do in the situation and stay on top of that.”

“I acknowledge what happened. ... But this is where I’m at right now and this is what I need to do. So it’s almost like finding an opportunity in it.”