Fastball command the key for Gray vs. Phillies

Righty has been relying on fastball more in recent starts

Fastball command the key for Gray vs. Phillies

DENVER -- Jon Gray has been through his share of adversity in 2017, most notably a stress fracture in his left foot that kept him sidelined nearly three months. Upon his return, Gray posted a 7.32 ERA over his first four starts, which was inflated by a July 14 contest in which he surrendered eight runs in two-plus innings against the Mets in New York.

But with his seven strong innings against the Phillies in the Rockies' 8-5 win at Coors Field on Saturday night, Gray has given up four runs in 14 innings (2.57 ERA) over his last two outings. On July 30 at Nationals Park, Gray no-hit the Nats for six of seven innings, giving up three runs in the fourth.

Having a healthy and effective Gray would go a long way for the Rockies in the stretch run as they battle for the top National League Wild Card spot. When Gray is right, his fastball command looks like it did Saturday.

"Being aggressive in the zone with the fastball and not really relying on secondary pitches to get through [was key]," Gray said. "That can make your pitch count go up."

What Gray has shown over his last two starts is that he's increasingly relying on the fastball, but not necessarily looking for the swinging strike with it. From the beginning of the 2016 season through July 29, Gray's called-strike rate on fastballs was 16.8 percent. Over his past two starts, it was 24.5 percent. Gray's whiff rate on fastballs from the start of last season through July 29 was 7.5 percent. Over his last two starts: 1.6 percent.

"Every pitch I throw, I feel like I'm gonna get an out with this one," Gray said. "It's not just that I'm gonna get a strike with it, but I'm gonna get an out with it. Just throw fastballs at the knees and get ground balls early. One-, two-, three-pitch at-bats."

Gray also has been utilizing his fastball with more frequency, particularly over his past three starts. On July 25 at St. Louis, 43 percent of Gray's pitches were fastballs. On Saturday, it was 75 percent.

An element of this was that the Rockies staked Gray to a substantial lead early, but the jump is significant nonetheless. On July 19, for example, Gray was staked to a 13-0 lead but threw his fastball only 52 percent of the time over six innings.

Gray didn't have smooth sailing throughout his 94-pitch effort Saturday. But the result was what Rockies manager Bud Black wanted to see.

"He got stressed a couple times," Black said. "Bases loaded and Freddy Galvis hit the line drive to Mark Reynolds, who made a great play. But that's baseball. I like the fact that when Daniel Nava tripled, Jon got out of that one unscathed. That showed me something.

"Jon's still growing. He's not a finished product by any means. But the last two starts, those are good signs for Jon moving forward."

Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @MannyOnMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.