Latest Gray start highlights staff's improvement

Latest Gray start highlights staff's improvement

ATLANTA -- Whether he'd end up with a win was beyond Rockies rookie right-hander Jon Gray's control and not on his mind during Sunday's seventh inning with the game scoreless.

The Braves would win the game in the ninth, 1-0, on Chase d'Arnaud's walk-off single off reliever Gonzalez Germen at Turner Field. But in the grand scheme, the notion of Gray being described as an "ace," a "horse," a "No. 1" or whatever you call that kind of pitcher, crystalized.

Gray faced down a two-on, two-out situation, in his duel with Braves All-Star starter Julio Teheran. After he ended the inning by forcing d'Arnaud -- who'd bested him for two hits -- to swing through a 1-2 changeup on his career-high 115th pitch, he did a triumphant pirouette. Seven innings, no runs, five hits, eight strikeouts.

"All I could think about was getting the next guy out," Gray said. "Nothing would get in my way. I'm going to leave it out here. That's going to be it. I'm not letting him get on base.

"I took ownership of that inning."

Gray the third overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, put his signature on the game by demonstrating his many weapons.

The 24-year-old uses what he needs on his fastball -- it ranged from 91-97 mph on Sunday -- but his put-away pitch is his slider. But it wasn't effective early in the game. He needed a fortunate line drive from Nick Markakis to begin a double play to end the first inning -- a frame in which he'd carried a 6.60 ERA in his previous 15 starts.

LeMahieu starts nice double play

So Gray went with his changeup and his curveball until he found his slider in the fourth and fifth. He finished the latter with a slider that badly fooled Freddie Freeman, who fanned four times.

The adage is a pitcher shouldn't be beaten with his third- or fourth-best pitch. Gray threw them, anyhow, and no one could beat him.

"I actually said to myself today I was so happy I can mix four pitches now," said Gray, who has a 4.33 ERA -- 3.11 in his last 10 games. "They're four better-than-quality pitches. I don't feel like I'll run out of options. They can't eliminate something, sit on one pitch. That helps a lot."

Gray gets out of a jam

Despite being 42-49, the Rockies have challenged themselves to push toward postseason contention and avoid being sellers at the Aug. 1 non-waiver Trade Deadline. It's a playoff-type mindset, and Sunday -- although they were unable to earn a sweep and fell to 6-12 in one-run games -- they received that sort of start from Gray.

"I thought he used all his pitches -- commanded the fastball, threw strikes, did a nice job," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said.

With a rotation that has improved its ERA each month -- 3.46 in July -- the Rockies can no longer be dismissed as a team with a strong offense and weak pitching staff. In fact, too often this season the hitting hasn't come through when they've received starts like Gray's on Sunday. This was the second time Gray has thrown seven scoreless innings and not received the decision. The Rockies lost to the Giants on May 7, 2-1.

"The hitters know," Gray said. "They see the work we put in, how we leave everything out there every time we start. They're proud of us, and I know we have a good offense.

"I think we're going to really come out of the gate this second half. I really do. We had a good series here and plan to take it on home, win some games there and get the ball rolling."

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for since 2002. 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.