SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Jon Gray is jazzed.
Not about his six-inning, 88-pitch effort in a minor-league scrimmage on a back field here Wednesday. His line was nothing special: four runs (three earned), on five hits with seven strikeouts and no walks. Catching prospect Dom Nunez tagged him for a two-run home run.
Rather, what had Gray bubbling with optimism afterward was his overall performance this spring, which has him primed for Monday’s season opener at Milwaukee. Though manager Bud Black has not officially proclaimed Gray the opening-day starter, everything lines up for Gray to be on the mound against the Brewers at Miller Park.
“I’m ready. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time,” said Gray, who is feeling no ill effects from a sore big toe that had limited him to 2 ⅔ innings in his last Cactus League start. “It’s exciting. We are all competitive people and this is exactly where we want to be, right there in the middle of the storm.”
What pleased Gray the most about his performance Wednesday was the command of his usually trusty slider, a pitch he’s struggled with throughout camp.
“Today was the first time in a while where I felt like I threw a really good, consistent slider,” he said. “I started feeling that later in the game and from the third inning on I was rolling. Plus my curveball was there for my strikeout pitch … it was a good day.”
Catcher Tony Wolters, who will be behind the plate for Monday’s opener, was impressed.
“I think Jon thinks a lot about his slider, which is good,” Wolters said. “He wants to make it better and keep competing with it. But he also needs to know that he has two other pitches that are plus pitches. We are just trying to mix it up today and get all of his pitches working. But I was pleased with how he threw today. He’s ready.”
Gray, 25, is the Rockies’ de facto ace, but if the Rockies are truly to contend with San Francisco and Los Angeles in the National League West, Gray has to take a big step forward.
He went 10-10 with a 4.61 ERA last season, striking out 185 to set a franchise rookie record. He had moments of brilliance mixed with stretches of inconsistency. The highlight came on Sept. 17 in a game vs. San Diego when Gray threw his first complete-game shutout while setting a Rockies and Coors Field record with 16 strikeouts.
To take his game to the next level, the Rockies believe Gray needed another pitch to complement his 96-98 mph fastball and 88 mph slider, a pitch that’s one of the best in the game when he’s commanding it. Gary added a curveball, which is designed to keep hitters off-balance. Gray is finding his curve can be a strikeout pitch.
“I think it’s been the difference-maker,” he said. “This whole spring I really haven’t thrown much of my slider and I didn’t have a great feel for it most of the spring, but the curveball has been a great replacement. And now I know that no matter what, I’m going to have that pitch. That’s good, positive energy.”
Gray opened the 2016 season on the disabled list because of an abdominal strain. One of his missions over the winter was to become more fit, and more flexible. To do that, he incorporated pilates into his workouts. Now, his entire body feels better and his right arm feels stronger.
“I think I’m doing a really good job of taking care of my arm. I haven’t had any real arm trouble this whole spring training,” he said. “It’s been great. I have taken better care of it in the training room, getting massages and working on tight muscles. But it feels great and very well balanced.”
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