Right-han­der has po­ten­tial to be Rock­ies’ ace, but he isn’t there yet

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Pa­trick Saun­ders

PHOENIX» Jon Gray looks like an ace straight out of cen­tral cast­ing. The sturdy Rock­ies right-han­der stands 6-foot-5, weighs 230 pounds, con­sis­tently un­leashes a 96 mph fast­ball and throws a slider that cuts the heart out of hit­ters.

Fri­day night at Chase Field, Gray re­turned to the mound after re­cov­er­ing from a stress frac­ture in his left foot that cost him 77 big-league days. Gray struck out 10 Arizona hit­ters over six in­nings and helped halt the Rock­ies’ eight-game los­ing streak.

He used his trusty slider to whiff Di­a­mond­backs MVP can­di­date Paul Gold­schmidt three times and drew praise from Arizona man­ager Torey Lovullo.

“I saw some down fast­balls, bot­tom of the zone, good an­gle,” Lovullo said of Gray. “He was work­ing the edges of the plate and his slider was more than ef­fi­cient. Know­ing that he was com­ing off the foot in­jury and it’s his first out­ing at this level after a long re­hab, I though he did a pretty good job. He gave the Rock­ies ex­actly what they needed.”

But is Gray, at age 25, truly an ace? Is he the foun­da­tion of the fran­chise? Is he the type of pitcher the Rock­ies can truly count on to stop skids, beat the best teams in the Na­tional League and lead them to the promised land of post­sea­son play?

The con­sen­sus is maybe, but he’s cer­tainly not there yet.

“Jon, po­ten­tially, can be that guy,” said first-year Rock­ies man­ager Bud Black. “Ev­ery­body has their dif­fer­ent cri­te­ria, but for me, pass­ing the test of time is the most im­por­tant fac­tor for me to la­bel a pitcher a true ace. So I think Jon has to prove that over time.

“The phys­i­cal tools are there. The

de­liv­ery, the stuff, is there. I think Jon has stamina and dura­bil­ity, but Jon still has things to work on.”

Mark Wi­ley, the Rock­ies’ di­rec­tor of pitch­ing op­er­a­tions, has been in pro­fes­sional base­ball since he was 18 years old. He is 69 now. He was a big-league pitch­ing coach for 17 sea­sons, in­clud­ing 1995-98 with Cleve­land In­di­ans teams that went to the play­offs four times and to the World Series twice. Wi­ley’s In­di­ans had the low­est ERA in the Amer­i­can League in 1995 and 1996.

Wi­ley knows about pitch­ing, so he knows the real thing when he sees it.

“An ace is an ace be­cause he likes be­ing on the big stage,” Wi­ley said. “You don’t think any­body is bet­ter than you. It’s not that you don’t re­spect other guys’ abil­i­ties, but you truly be­lieve that you are bet­ter than that Hall of Fame hit­ter at the plate who’s fac­ing you.

“You want to be there, in that mo­ment. You want to take on that re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Has Gray reached that sum­mit yet?

“I think it will take time,” Wi­ley said. “I think there are cer­tain el­e­ments that we can see about to hap­pen, but they still have to hap­pen. But I do think the build­ing blocks are there. He’s a way more ag­gres­sive pitcher than he was when he first came up.”

Ask Gray about his sta­tus as a would-be ace and fire flashes in his eyes.

“That’s my whole ob­jec­tive,” he said. “That’s what I work for ev­ery day — to be an ace. I know the stuff is there, so now it’s how I put that stuff to­gether and how well I show it on the field that mat­ters.”

Oh, yes, “the stuff.” It’s the rea­son the Rock­ies se­lected Gray, from the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa, in the 2013 draft as the third over­all pick. The Sooner from Shawnee ar­rived in the ma­jors with his ex- plo­sive fast­ball and bit­ing slider, and he has de­vel­oped a good but still in­con­sis­tent curve­ball since join­ing the Rock­ies. His changeup re­mains a work in progress.

The slider is Gray’s spe­cialty. It has a rel­a­tively sharp break, but what makes the pitch so wicked is that it ar­rives at the plate at 90 mph. Last sea­son, ac­cord­ing to Be­yond the Box Score, bat­ters hit only .174 against the slider, and whiffed at it on more than 43 per­cent of their swings, 11th-best in the ma­jor leagues.

“Jon Gray has elec­tric stuff, he has en­ergy and he has God-given abil­ity,” said Rock­ies catcher Tony Wolters. “Guys want to play be­hind him. Plus, he takes his job su­per se­ri­ous.”

Still, Gray’s over­all num­bers are far from great. Through 42 bigleague starts, he is 11-12 with a 4.72 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP (walks plus hits al­lowed per in­ning pitched). He is on a path sim­i­lar to former Rock­ies right-han­der Ubaldo Jimenez.

Over the first 51 games (50 starts) of his career, Jimenez was 16-16 with a 4.06 ERA through the 2008 sea­son. Then he broke out in 2009 (the last time the Rock­ies made it to the play­offs), go­ing 1512 with a 3.47 ERA and 198 strike­outs. He was even bet­ter in 2010, fin­ish­ing 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA and set­ting a sea­son fran­chise record with 214 strike­outs. He fin­ished third in vot­ing for the NL Cy Young Award that year.

Gray an­nounced his ar­rival as a po­ten­tial ace last sea­son against San Diego at Coors Field. On Sept. 17, he pitched one of the most dom­i­nant games in team his­tory as the Rock­ies blanked the Padres 8-0. Gray tossed a shutout and struck out a club-record 16 bat­ters, also the most in Coors Field his­tory.

“Jon was un­be­liev­able,” all-star third base­man Nolan Are­nado said after that game. “That’s prob­a­bly the best pitch­ing per­for­mance I’ve ever played be­hind. I didn’t even have to make any plays be­cause he struck out ev­ery­one. But his in­ten­sity out there tonight was amaz­ing. He was locked in from the first in­ning on. He just com­peted his butt off. We don’t see a lot of games like that here.”

Gray had an ex­cel­lent spring train­ing, fully aware that he had grown up a lot.

“I think spring train­ing was a good re­flec­tion of where I’m at,” he said. “That’s how I wanted to carry my­self. I didn’t re­ally feel like I be­longed the first year I was up. In the back of my mind I would be think­ing, ‘Am I re­ally this good? Or am I get­ting lucky?’

“That’s be­cause I would have some rough games ev­ery now and then, and I’d feel like I was right back to where I started. Now I re­al­ize that’s part of learn­ing. So I kicked the bad habit and got rid of those neg­a­tive thoughts. Now, I’m back to lov­ing base­ball.”

The foot in­jury that side­lined Gray on April 13 was “in­cred­i­bly frus­trat­ing,” he said, but now he’s ready to re­sume his quest.

“It was a big game. I had a big op­por­tu­nity to have a good game and re­ally try to turn things around for us,” Gray said Fri­day after Colorado’s 6-3 vic­tory over the Di­a­mond­backs. “All that stuff crossed my mind, but when­ever I stepped over the line, I was think­ing about pitch by pitch, try­ing to ex­e­cute each one.

“Ac­tu­ally, I didn’t have very many but­ter­flies at all. That’s start­ing to go away, which is pretty cool.”

Chris­tian Petersen, Getty Images

Rock­ies starter Jon Gray re­turned Fri­day night from a foot in­jury, post­ing 10 strike­outs in a 6-3 vic­tory over the Di­a­mond­backs.

Chris­tian Petersen, Getty Images

Ac­cord­ing to some within the or­ga­ni­za­tion, Jon Gray has “the stuff ” to be­come an ace.

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