LOS ANGELES -- Rockies right-hander Jon Gray's disappointed jerk of the head after coming up empty on the key pitch of Monday night's 4-1 loss to the Dodgers served as a reminder that that he's a living, breathing pitcher -- hopefully a future ace.
Gray's entrée to the Majors has been governed by a set of calculations. How many innings, Triple-A and Majors, greater than last year's 124 1/3 (which were all in Double-A) equal doom for a never-before-injured arm? Is a pitch limit strictly a count, or do some pitches under stress count for more than others? Plug Gray and the terms "pitch count" or "innings limit" into any search engine, and you'd find practically everything written about him since he debuted on Aug. 3.
Gray, who turns 24 on Nov. 5, has been on board with the careful handling, believing it'll pay off next season, as he attempts to fulfill the dreams the Rockies have been harboring since they selected him third overall out of Oklahoma in 2013. But on Monday night, he left the counting to others and threw all his efforts into battling Dodgers three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw.
Gray struck out a career-high eight, but wound up with his first Major League decision -- in his eighth start -- when he gave up an RBI double to Justin Turner with two out in the fifth. Rockies manager Walt Weiss, whose job it is to adhere to the limits, removed Gray right then, with 92 pitches on his ledger.
"I didn't even notice it," Gray said in a clear statement that he was trying to win the game and not worrying about the limit. "This was the first I've heard about it."
Weiss beamed without reservation about Gray's work, even though it wasn't quite good enough to stop Kershaw from winning his ninth straight decision. The Dodgers' lineup, which included eight left-handed hitters, attacked with veteran savvy, laying off Gray's slider that breaks for the back foot of lefty hitters -- a strategy that led to Gray finishing with just 13 first-pitch strikes to 22 batters. Still, Gray competed like someone who could battle Kershaw ace-to-ace.
"He's well on his way," Weiss said. "When you strike guys out, your pitch count can mount. But he's doing a nice job. He's growing up before our eyes."
For his part, Gray hasn't balked at the kid gloves he's being handled with. His 36 Major League innings put him at 150 1/3 overall this year. Three more starts potentially put him in the 165 range, which seems to be fine with the Rockies -- who want to limit the innings but still have him prove he can pitch from April to October.
So Gray can put the disappointment of not delivering the key pitch aside and take solace from having held his own on the same mound as Kershaw.
"It was the biggest stage I have ever been on," Gray said. "Knowing that I can go out and perform well is a huge boost of confidence. This small step tonight is going to be big later on."