The indelible image of Jon Gray's 2018 season arrived on Sept. 29 at Coors Field. He faced the Washington Nationals in his biggest regular season outing, a win paving the road for the Rockies to claim their first-ever National League West crown.
In the first inning, Gray grimaced, his side bothering him. Not longer after, his hands covered his face in the dugout after the Nationals plastered him for five runs and seven hits in two innings of a 12-2 rout.
The Rockies advanced to the playoffs. But Gray never pitched again. Exiled for ineffectiveness, Gray admitted to Denver7's Alison Mastrangelo this week he was uncertain whether he wanted to keep playing.
"Oh yeah. It just wasn't fun. I always had baseball my whole life. When it wasn't going right, you don't feel like the person that you are. It's a big chip of you gone, and for a long time I didn't think I was going to get it back," Gray said from Salt River Fields. "It was hard work. You have to keep trying to find a way. There's always a way to fight."
Gray, a former first-round draft choice, entered last season with expectations befitting his first-round draft status. While he fizzled in a handful of big games in 2017, including the wild-card meltdown at Arizona, he appeared ready to blossom into an ace. Instead, he wilted in the spotlight, ultimately demoted to Triple-A to work on his mechanics and pitch sequences. Gray finished 12-9 with a 5.12 ERA, leading the National League in earned runs allowed (98), while permitting a career-high 27 home runs.
After the demoralizing season, Gray took a month off to clear his head. He arrived at two factors necessary to regain his footing, if not his teammates' trust: added strength and the rediscovery of his slider.
Gray rolled up his sleeves. He changed his body back to where it was. After dipping as low as 209 pounds last year, Gray weighs 235 this spring. He looks like Big Jon again. What he sees in the mirror matters on the mound.
"I can’t change what happened. But I can change what happens from here on out. I knew I could get stronger, make sure I am healthy so I can put up 200 innings," Gray said. "I worked on it. I read books on mental toughness because I think that will come in handy. I think a lot of what happened was me not feeling strong. I didn't have confidence. The stronger I feel the better I feel mentally."
While muscle will help, it must be accompanied by multiple pitches. Gray felt naked on the mound last season without his wipeout slider. He believes that pitch will provide a path to redemption.
"Getting my bread and butter pitch back (is huge). Throwing sliders that slide," Gray said with a grin. "I felt like last year I had to throw a perfect one for it to move. It was so frustrating because that was always my out pitch and I had to resort to my curveball and fastballs as out pitches. And my fastball velo was down. I was trying to piece it together out there."
Manager Bud Black believes Gray can rebound. Frankly, Colorado needs him. While Kyle Freeland and German Marquez anchor the rotation, reliability from third or fourth starters like Gray and Tyler Anderson is critical to preserving and managing the bullpen.
"There’s some stuff going on behind the scenes: coaching, teaching that will help Jon. And it's new season," Black said. "Jon is very talented. Ask Jon his expectations, and they are to be one of the best starting pitchers in the National League. We are confident in Jon's ability and his ability to improve his game to where he's a very effective major league starting pitcher."
For Gray, the freshness of spring training is obvious. He breezed through his interview, acting and sounding unburdened. The season will serve as a referendum on his offseason. But Gray believes the worst is finally behind him.
"It has tested me in every area. To go through a season like that was rough. You always look to climb up. It did test me spiritually. I don't like to admit that, but it did. But it also confirmed my faith and made it stronger," Gray said. "I feel like my belief is there. I feel like I have improved in every way to be a guy that they can count on."