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Gray has new toy to unleash on hitters

Right-hander crafting curveball to work off of fastball/slider

DENVER -- Jon Gray is planning to unveil his gift to the Rockies come Spring Training.

The right-handed Gray, 24, the third pick in the 2013 Draft, made his Major League debut with nine starts that swung the gamut from brilliant to bad. His 0-2 record and 5.53 ERA, under a tightly controlled innings limit, included three games of five or more innings, five or more strikeouts and two or fewer runs, but also included blowups of seven runs in 1 2/3 innings and five in 4 2/3.

But Gray said they taught him two lessons: He is good enough to compete and possibly dominate, and he needed a new weapon. As soon as the Rockies shut him down with two weeks left in the season, he began working on a new curveball.

Gray lit up like a kid on Christmas when talking about a pitch that could be a shiny new addition to an impressive arsenal that includes a fastball in the 93-96 mph range, and a slider averaging close to 87 mph.

"I'd never thrown a curveball in my life, could never get the spin," said Gray, who purchased a two-foot artificial tree for the first Christmas for himself and his wife, Jacklyn. "I would always watch videos before my start of dominant righties -- Yu Darvish, Felix Hernandez, Gerrit Cole, Garrett Richards. I noticed a lot of them had something really slow to throw a hitter off. I saw that as a weapon, if I could learn it. I asked the coaches if they could start working with me on one. They were pretty open about it."

Bullpen coach Darren Holmes, whose curveball helped him thrive as a member of the Rockies' bullpen from 1993-97, taught Gray how to make the pitch work consistently. Gray said he already is creating a consistent "12-6" downward break (think of the hands of a clock at 12:30]. He hopes his new toy floats in "below 80, maybe at 75," which would be slower than his changeup, which travels at about 85 mph.

But it's more than the added pitch. It's the enthusiasm with which Gray is attacking it. After a down-then-up season at Triple-A Albuquerque and some hard lessons in the Majors, Gray is not spooked. That'll do him good, especially at Coors Field.

Gray unwittingly created fears that he'd be yet another pitcher terrified at pitching at altitude after his final start, when the Pirates bested him for five runs and nine hits, including two of the four homers he yielded, in 4 2/3 innings on Sept. 21. Wearing a black hoodie, Gray seemed perplexed in postgame interviews. Having ERA splits of 2.70 road and 8.27 home happens, especially in such a small sample size. But seeming bothered by it -- "I just can't find that, whatever it is, to make an adjustment to pitch in this place," he said then -- is a red flag for pitchers in purple pinstripes.

"I've shown I can be good, I've shown I can be bad," said Gray, who plans to head Scottsdale, Ariz., by New Year's Day to begin working out at the team's training center. "I don't want people to focus on the negatives, the bad ones.

"And pitching at elevation, I want to be consistent there. I don't think it' something I can't deal with. If it was, I'd say it. It was the same thing at Triple-A Albuquerque. I struggled at first. The first five or six starts, they were pretty bad. But I found a way to pitch at that place. I know that I can do the same here."

The Rockies believe in him, and expect him to prove worthy of being in the season-opening rotation.

"I saw a lot of growth, especially on the mental, the emotional side," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "I think he showed a lot of composure, a lot of poise on the mound, wasn't effected by the tough inning, the tough outing. His ability to bounce back from those type of things was very good. His stuff is top-shelf stuff. He's one of the guys I'm very excited about."

The expectations don't make Gray nervous at all. He said it has been a relaxing offseason, with the only hiccup being the surprisingly huge crowd he and Jacklyn navigated for the opening of a well-known Christmas lights celebration at Rhema Bible College in Tulsa, Okla. "It was more people than I'd been around at any point in my life, so we had to get out of there, quick," Gray said.

But he looks forward to pitching in front of large crowds, and pleasing the ones at Coors Field.

"I don't feel much pressure at all," Gray said. "It's not like I hope I can be that guy, because I know I can."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb, listen to Podcasts and like his Facebook page.
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