Grand Junction rookie Jonathan Gray looks back on his first professional start with discontent, but not regret.
"I wasn't really used to getting knocked around the yard like that," said Gray, the third overall pick in the 2013 Draft by the Colorado Rockies. "But I'm glad it happened, and I'm glad it happened in my first outing. That will make you learn better than anything. I think it was really a blessing in disguise."
In that highly anticipated start July 10 at home against Billings, Gray gave up three earned runs on seven hits with one strikeout. The right-hander noted his lack of command as the culprit for his struggles.
Gray was up in the strike zone that night, and the Mustangs took advantage with three runs in the first inning and one in the second. Gray was lifted after the third when he reached his pitch limit, but the Rockies eventually got him off the hook and won, 10-6.
Gray learned from his mistakes and, in his next start July 15 at home against Great Falls, he cruised. Gray gave up one earned run on one hit in 2 2/3 innings, recording four strikeouts without a walk.
"You can't really overpower guys a lot of times like you can in college baseball," he said. "These guys can hit fastballs, so location is really important."
Colorado has made a big investment in the 21-year-old Gray, signing him to a contract in June that included a reported $4.8 million signing bonus. He is the organization's highest-drafted player since it selected pitcher Greg Reynolds second overall out of Stanford in 2006.
Gray is the also the highest-drafted player in the Pioneer League this season and one of only three first-round Draft picks from 2013 currently in the league, along with Idaho Falls shortstop Hunter Dozier (eighth overall) and Billings outfielder Phil Ervin (27th overall).
Still, Gray isn't dogged by expectations.
"I don't feel any pressure," Gray said. "They have 100 percent confidence in me. I see it as motivation. They believe I can be a really good player, and that's what I'm going to work at -- to meet those expectations."
The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Gray was drafted out of the University of Oklahoma, where he dominated hitters with an upper-90s fastball and the ability to pitch to both sides of the plate. Gray's slider was his out-pitch. He threw 126 1/3 innings this past season at OU, going 10-2 with a 1.59 ERA and 138 strikeouts.
Now as a pro, Gray is trying to hone his changeup, which first-year Grand Junction manager Anthony Sanders said is coming along just fine. Even Gray said it was "on the money" in his outing against Great Falls.
"Before we saw him throw it, I was expecting something really bad," Sanders said. "But that's a big league changeup in my opinion right now. I don't know if I could hit that thing."
Including this season at OU, Gray has already eclipsed 130 innings in 2013. But he says his arm feels great. His innings workload will be light for the remainder of this year, but his determination to improve each day won't change.
"I'm glad I'm here. I want to work my way up from the bottom," said Gray, who chose not to sign in 2011 after being drafted in the 10th round by the Yankees. "I want to earn the rankings and the levels."
Youth is served: Most Rockies fans are fixed on Gray, but Grand Junction outfielder Raimel Tapia has dominated the league. The 19-year-old is hitting .406 with a league-high 39 hits -- including eight doubles, three triples and two home runs -- and 26 RBIs while riding a 17-game hitting streak.
Power surge: Ogden outfielder Jacob Scavuzzo is looking to make a run at the Pioneer League's single-season home run record. As of July 16, Scavuzzo led with seven homers in 80 at-bats, a ratio of one homer every 11.4 at-bats. Gregory Morrison of Medicine Hat set the single-season mark with 23 homers in 1997.
What gives: Entering July 17, Billings' pitching staff boasted some of the league's best numbers: fewest hits (212), second-fewest earned runs (91), second-fewest walks (76), third-fewest home runs (14) and most strikeouts (215). But the Mustangs were tied for the fewest wins in the league (11) and had won only twice at home.