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Jon Gray excels in big moment to give Texas what he couldn't Colorado - A World Series Championship

Patrick Lyons Avatar
November 4, 2023

When Jon Gray was selected by the Colorado Rockies as the third overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, he was viewed as a key part of generational prospects that would lead the organization to the first World Series win in franchise history.

Though he was at the forefront of the club’s consecutive postseason appearances in 2017-18, it wouldn’t be until he left that Gray would help a team win their first ever championship.

When the Texas Rangers defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks in five games to secure the 2023 World Series, it was a first in their 63 seasons as part of Major League Baseball.

A franchise since 1961 — originally known as the Washington Senators before moving to Arlington in 1972 — the Rangers made two prior appearances in the Fall Classic, both losing efforts in 2010-11. They lost 102 games in 2021 before new general manager Chris Young went to work reshaping the roster and pulling the team from out of the American League West basement.

On Dec. 1, 2021, Texas guaranteed a staggering $556 million in contracts to three free agents: Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Jon Gray. Following a Game 3 win where each man factored, especially Gray’s three scoreless innings in relief, manager Bruce Bochy acknowledged the trio.

“I think they showed what they mean to us with their outstanding play. Jon Gray stepped in when we lost Max (Scherzer) there and did a terrific job, didn’t he?” Bochy added, “But those guys, they’re the type of guys that can turn a franchise around. Went out and signed them and made this club that much better.”

After leading the Rangers rotation in starts during the regular season, Gray finished the year on the injured list with lower right forearm tightness. It held him out of the first rounds of the 2023 Postseason. When he returned for the American League Championship Series, he was used in relief once and for just an inning despite the matchup with the Houston Astros lasting all seven games.

The 31-year-old gave up a run in an inning of work during the Game 3 loss to the Astros in what was his first relief appearance since the only time of his career up to that point. It came during a tumultuous four-game series that turned back the clock to a more chaotic time in Coors Field history. The date was June 16, 2019 and manager Bud Black had witnessed the Rockies relief corps squander numerous leads that weekend to the upstart San Diego Padres, including a six-run lead in the ninth, a first for the woeful franchise. Altogether, the two teams combined for 92 runs, most in a four-game series in the modern era.

Colorado was in the mix for a National League Wild Card at that point, but an opportunity to reach the postseason for a third consecutive year flashed before Black’s eyes. Closer Wade Davis had already given up four runs to tie the Sunday affair at 13-13 in the ninth and the go-ahead run was on third base. In stepped Gray on his throwing day as the last hope to get the final out of the inning. Following two intentional walks to allow a force out at any base, Gray walked pinch-hitter and fellow pitcher Matt Strahm to give San Diego the winning run. 

Gray was much better for Texas in an even more pressure packed situation during the Fall Classic. His performance in Game 1 kept the D-backs scoreless in the latter part of the contest. Shortly after his departure in the ninth, Texas tied the score and, two innings later, won the game in 11 innings to take a 1-0 lead in the series.

Despite enough confidence from the front office to hand him a four-year, $56 million deal ahead of the 2022 season, Gray still seemed to waver in his own confidence at times while in Arlington, something commonplace throughout his seven years in Denver. 

“He kind of gets a little down on himself, but I’ve been trying to hype him up a bunch and he’s a stud,” teammate Dane Dunning said after Gray’s scoreless five-out performance in Game 1. “He’s been one of our guys since day one. He’s electric when he goes out there.”

In Game 3, Scherzer unexpectedly exited in the bottom of the fourth inning and Gray had to adapt quickly with the opposing fans sensing the critical opportunity. Bochy named the Oklahoma native the Game 4 starter, so his involvement was unanticipated. Coupled with three scoreless inning from Mad Max, it was just the sixth instance in World Series history for a team to have two pitchers each work three or more scoreless frames in the same game, and first since San Diego’s Andy Hawkins and Craig Lefferts in Game 2 of the 1984 World Series. Not only did Gray allow only one hit during the biggest game of his nine-year career, he did it in a ballpark with bad memories.

Chase Field hadn’t posed many issues for him during his first few seasons with the Rockies. He struck out 10 in back-to-back quality starts in Phoenix during the 2017 season. And ahead of his final start ever with Colorado in 2021, he posted a 3.72 ERA in five consecutive outings. In between were two starts. Those moments and remembrances in particular were bleak.

The 2017 NL Wild Card Game was an intense spotlight on a player in his second full-season as a big leaguer. Tasked with being a pitching savior for a club playing in the least pitcher-friendly ballpark in MLB only made it more intensified. The one-game playoff started with a three-run first inning for the Diamondbacks. Once the score climbed to 4-0 in the second frame, the chance for the Rockies first postseason win since 2009 were dashed, along with hopes that Gray would ever become the infallible ace so many had placed upon his shoulders.

His very next start, Opening Day 2018, would look quite similar as the Wild Card Game. Arizona scored three in the bottom of the first on the way to an 8-2 victory at Chase Field. Gray was credited with four innings and three earned runs allowed. Though he lasted until the fifth, he could have seen more runs count against him had Chris Rusin not escaped a bases loaded jam with no outs.

Things got worse after that. Gray and his 5.77 ERA was optioned to Triple-A for two weeks to work not on mechanics, but on more mental elements of the game, as Black said during the announcement. The results upon his return — 5-1 with a 3.91 ERA, not to mention Colorado was 10-3 in his starts — were significantly better, at least until his last outing of the 2018 season.

https://twitter.com/sportsnetrm/status/1046566412884402176?s=42&t=hcqdPHswFV5sSP1obG2-1A

The Rockies led the Los Angeles Dodgers by a game atop the NL West standings with two games remaining on the 2018 slate. Colorado controlled their destiny. With a pair of wins against the Washington Nationals at home, the franchise would have their first division title since their baseball birth in 1993. Instead, Gray allowed two runs in the first and three in the second during a 12-2 loss that opened the door for the Dodgers to share ownership of first place by the end of the day. Colorado would lose Game 163 to Los Angeles two days later and drop down back to the second Wild Card. When the 25-man roster for the NL Wild Card Game and NL Division Series were announced, Gray would not be listed.

Five years after those stormy performances, the Gray Wolf became the alpha wolf. On Monday, he earned the win during a 3-1 victory over the Diamondbacks at Chase Field. He became the first pitcher to win a World Series game after playing for the Rockies since Tyler Matzek in 2021 and just fourth ever (also: Jeremy Guthrie and Jeremy Affeldt in 2014).

By working multiple innings in Game 3, the three-time Opening Day starter gifted Bochy nine outs on a day when not only his starter left early, but before needing 27 outs from his bullpen in Game 4. Considering the most reliable reliever on the staff, closer José Leclerc, had been used in 12 of the Rangers’ 15 postseason games up to that point, the likelihood of Arizona answering back to win without Gray’s performance would have been much greater.

“He probably could have gone more, to be honest,” Bochy said post-game. “We were able to stay away from a lot of guys because of Jon Gray’s effort and had our leverage guys out there.”

As much as the Diamondbacks were glad to see Gray join the other league, they were even more eager to watch another NL West foe, Corey Seager of the Dodgers, sign with the Rangers. As luck and the baseball gods would have it, Seager tormented the Snakes once more with a 1.137 OPS during the five games, including three home runs and six runs batted in en route to winning his second World Series MVP.

“It truly is incredible. But it’s not just me, man,” Seager said following Game 5. “They’re all professionals in (the clubhouse) and we all knew we had a job and task at hand. And we competed and we did it.”

One of the most hyped players Colorado has ever drafted and developed is no longer measured by the same expectations. He’s regarded amongst the best starting pitchers in Rockies history and his 16-strikeout performance on Sep. 17, 2016 remains the franchise record for most in a game.

This time, he did it. Jon Gray is now and forever a World Series champion.

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