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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Colorado Rockies announced Tuesday their most talented pitcher, Jon Gray, will get the ball on Opening Day to face the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Of course, the last real game Colorado played was against those same Diamondbacks and saw Gray make his postseason debut only to be unceremoniously swatted around the park and out of the game having recorded just four outs, surrendering four runs on seven hits.
He was among the best pitchers in baseball in the second half of 2017, but that one performance has lingered all offseason over his 2018 projections.
Now, he gets his opportunity to immediately face down those demons, with the decision to hand the ball right back to him a show of faith in his ability to use what happened last season as a learning experience.
Manager Bud Black suggests he is primed to do just that.
“He’s admitted he handled that game differently than what he did the second half of the season,” he said. “I thought that was admirable that he came out and he said emotionally that he treated that differently. That’s a great sign for me of some maturity of how he handled that game and his postgame comments. For players, there’s steps to be taken all the time for growth. And I think that was one of them last year for Jon.”
This is the first time since joining the MLB ranks that Gray has managed to get through spring training without some kind of (typically minor) injury and he missed most of the first half a year ago with a leg injury after making a play on the mound in San Francisco.
We saw flashes of how dominant he could be toward the end of 2016, most notably in setting a new Coors Field record by striking out 16 San Diego Padres. Then we saw what he can be when he gets into a consistent rhythm the way he did to finish out last season. But he has yet to put it all together.
“Our hope is that he makes 33, 34 starts in the regular season and hopefully some beyond that,” says Black. While showing a ton of confidence in Tyler Anderson, who will make the second start of the season, and German Marquez who will make the third, it’s clear that Gray is his guy for these big moments. “If he makes his turns, if he goes out there 33, 34 times, I think there’s gonna be a lot of games that the Rockies win.”
And that’s the main thing for the Rockies manager. Gray doesn’t need to dominate every time out in order to be a nightmare for opponents. Black says he is looking for “consistency of performance” and for him to “stay in games.”
“Jon’s ready for this. It’s a feather in the cap for the guy who gets to pitch Opening Day. But its still one game.”
Gray joins Ubaldo Jimenez, Jorge De La Rosa, Aaron Cook, Jason Jennings, Mike Hampton, Darryl Kile, and Kevin Ritz as the only pitchers to ever make starts on consecutive Opening Days for Colorado. Nobody has done three. Yet.
There have been expectations on top of expectations since the second the Colorado Rockies drafted Jon Gray with the third overall pick in the 2013 draft. As fans and media look around for labels like “number one” or even “ace” Bud Black has his eyes set on a pitcher that just keeps getting better every year—every time—out.
“My expectations are that Jon figures this out at a pace we are all comfortable with. And it could happen in a big way.”