Gray set on earning spot in Rockies rotation

Right-hander fires two scoreless innings in spring debut vs. D-backs

Gray set on earning spot in Rockies rotation

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- After getting the message that the Rockies were counting on him this season, right-hander Jon Gray figured he'd better show up at camp with increased confidence. He displayed just that in two scoreless innings in a 6-3 loss to the D-backs in the Cactus League opener on Wednesday.

Gray needed a nifty backhand and throw from third baseman Nolan Arenado to end the second inning with runners at second and third, but somehow Gray didn't feel bailed out. Gray continued mixing a fastball that topped at 97 mph with a changeup and his new curveball, and he allowed two hits with a strikeout and a walk.

"I don't think last year at this time I would have gotten out of that first inning -- I think I would've folded," Gray said. "But today, I trusted everything. The groundball pitches are there. I gave my guys a chance to get an out. I'm very proud I could do that."

Last year, the Rockies called up Gray, their top pick in the 2013 Draft out of Oklahoma, but handled him carefully over nine starts (0-2, 5.53 ERA in 40 2/3 innings). It was enough for Gray to understand that he needed to figure out he needed to match his home performance (8.27 ERA) to his road work (2.70). But what the Rockies took from it was more important.

After setting a high trade value for outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, the Rockies made a calculated decision not to sign a safe veteran who would give them time in case Gray didn't show up ready to take a rotation job. A rotation spot is Gray's to claim on his way to the stardom that is expected of the No. 3 overall pick.

Beyond veteran lefty Jorge De La Rosa and righty Chad Bettis, a revelation last year, there are questions. Righties Tyler Chatwood (Tommy John surgery in 2014) and Jordan Lyles (limited to 22 starts in 2014 by a broken left hand and 11 in '15 because of right big toe surgery).

Gray's inexperience and his rough going last year raises legitimate questions. But the Rockies think Gray is the answer.

"I have that feeling more now than I had two years ago [in his first Major League camp], when I knew in the back of my mind there was time for me to get to the big leagues," Gray said. "Right now, it's now or never for me. I want to be a guy now."

Gray, 24, has three years of Minor League options, and the Rockies are collecting other strong young arms. But Gray says, "That's not an option. I want to step up."

Gray always has worked well arm side, inside to right-handers, with the fastball and the changeup. The curve, however, works the other side of the plate. After pitching with admitted jitters and walking his first batter, Chris Hermann, Gray worked a popup from Yasmany Tomas, then struck out Brandon Drury on a 1-2 curve.

Gray said he's still learning the pitch, and wants to use it in two ways -- for a strike and for a chase pitch. If spring continues the way it started, he'll have plenty of chances, thanks to catcher Nick Hundley. Gray threw seven curves, after expecting to throw about three.

"I'm glad I did that because it gives me a lot of good feedback that I can take into my bullpen for the next outing," Gray said.

Manager Walt Weiss called the curve "a good pitch. He's gaining confidence in it. It was good to see him break it out."

Arenado said he is interested in what Gray can do without restrictions.

"He was on a pitch count when I saw him last year, and he's got some great stuff," Arenado said. "It's still early, but I'm excited about him. He likes to compete. That's what you want in a pitcher."

The Rockies are trusting Gray will know what he needs to know when the regular season starts.

"I thought it was a challenge," Gray said. "I knew they wanted me to hit the ground running in Spring Training, throw me into games early and see what's going to happen. They're going with us young guys. I'm prepared for that."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb, listen to podcasts and like his Facebook page. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.