Jonathan Gray hasn't intended to strike out well over a third of the batters he's faced in the California League. It's just turned out that way.
The Rockies' top prospect fanned eight and gave up two hits over five scoreless innings Sunday, pitching Class A Advanced Modesto to a 4-1 win at Lake Elsinore.
Gray improved to 4-0 with a 0.75 ERA in five Cal League starts. Since debuting at the new level on Aug. 2, he's struck out 36 of the 86 batters who've been unfortunate enough to step into the box against him.
"I'm not really trying to strike guys out, I'm trying to pitch to contact," Gray said, adding that he's happy to get the strikeouts in the Cal League's hitter-friendly ballparks. "They don't really have a shot at me if I strike somebody out -- you don't really have to defend on a strikeout."
Selected fourth overall in this year's Draft, Gray debuted in the Rookie-level Pioneer League, where he compiled a 4.05 ERA and 15 strikeouts over 13 1/3 innings.
"Pitching in Grand Junction, where the ball just flies, is almost like training wheels for here. Transferring to a different park with a different altitude, it's almost easy now," he said.
"The biggest change is my fastball command. I'm hitting both sides of the plate, right on the corner. There's nothing they can really do if you put the ball in the corner -- they foul it off. But if you have a good out pitch, you can get them."
On Sunday, the 21-year-old right-hander gave up a one-out single in the first inning to Bridger Hunt, who was erased when Robert Kral bounced into a double play.
"It was a big relief. It helped with the pitch count so much," Gray said. "It's really frustrating to have a guy get on in the first inning, but then getting a ground-ball double play takes you straight into the dugout. It's the best thing that can happen in that situation."
The University of Oklahoma product cruised through the second and struck out the side in the third.
"That makes the pitcher feel so good," he said. "It's so stress-relieving and it just makes you feel so confident out there."
Hunt doubled with one out inthe fourth, but Nuts catcher and Rockies' No. 11 prospect Will Swanner picked him off after A. J. Kirby-Jones struck out.
"That was very big. I definitely gave him a few high-fives in the dugout," Gray said. "I needed that to happen. I hate pitching with runners on base."
Working under a Rockies-imposed limit of 75 pitchers or five innings, Gray finished his outing with a perfect final frame. It's tough, he admitted, to not be allowed to throw in the sixth.
"Every time, especially after the good ones. I always want to go out there and finish the game," he said. "It kind of [stinks]. You don't think about it until about the fifth, then you're like, 'Man, I was just getting ready to go. I was just getting into my groove.' But I know it's for my own good."
Aside from that annoyance, though, he knows he has nothing to complain about.
"It's gone pretty well. I couldn't ask for anything better," he said. "I really feel like I'm becoming a better pitcher every start I have."
The Nuts staked Gray to the lead before he took the mound on Jared Simon's two-run double in the first. Taylor Featherston plated two more in the fourth with his second double of the game and 30th of the season.