The Rockies have a list of goals -- they call them "absolutes" -- for their pitching prospects to consider daily. To 2013 first-round pick Jon Gray, one stands out as especially true, given the nature of the organization.
"One of the top things is pitching low [in the zone]," he said. "You can't pitch in Coors Field if you're up. Not many good things are going to happen."
The third overall pick in last year's Draft has made pitching down a priority. For the first time this year, Gray achieved that Wednesday night, getting six groundouts over 5 2/3 two-hit innings in Tulsa's 7-0 win over Northwest Arkansas.
The Rockies' top prospect struck out five and walked two en route to his first Double-A win.
The start was Gray's third in the Texas League. In his last outing, he retired only two batters and surrendered six runs as his ERA climbed to 12.15. Drillers shortstop Christian Adames told MiLB.com after that game -- a 10-9 Tulsa win -- that Gray was victimized mostly by bad luck.
Still, Gray spent the time between starts tweaking his mechanics to better drive his fastball and other offerings down in the zone. It's a priority for Colorado's Minor League pitchers -- the team even sets up knee-high strings across home plate in their bullpens to emphasize the point -- and Gray said that was the biggest difference for him on Wednesday.
"I was staying back on the rubber a little more," he said. "I was trying to give my arm enough time to catch up with me and make my pitches get low in the zone."
The focus on pitching to ground-ball contact is a departure for Gray from his college days, when he struck out 147 batters over 126 1/3 innings as a junior at Oklahoma.
"[Ground balls were] a little bit of a priority in college," he said. "But being with the Rockies, you hear a lot about playing in Coors Field, and that's one of the things, keeping the ball down. It's definitely something I've been working on for a while now. I think tonight, I really took a good step in that direction."
Gray (1-1) established his fastball early and picked up a pair of strikeouts in the first inning. In the second, he got Angel Franco to bounce into an inning-ending double play. The Naturals never really threatened until the sixth, when Ethan Chapman reached on an error and Lane Adams drew a one-out walk. Gray retired Jorge Bonifacio on a fly to center, then was lifted for Ryan Arrowood, who retired on Jared Schlehuber on a popup.
While the fastball was his go-to pitch against the Naturals, Gray said he also induced a few grounders with his changeup -- a pitch MLB.com's prospect team described as "solid" but less threatening than his heater or slider.
Gray also used the slider to get strikes and put hitters away.
"The backdoor slider is like my pitch," he said. "Every time I get that call, I know it's going to be painted. It feels good to throw that in any count. I know it'll be there anytime."
Having both the changeup and slider at his disposal is especially important now, Gray said, because of the differences between pro and college hitters.
"In college, you notice most of the time those hitters had the same approach because it was kind of a team thing," Gray said. "Now, in pro ball, every guy has a different approach. You have to pitch to guys individually. That's the biggest change."
Arrowood ended up working 2 1/3 hitless frames and Cole White pitched around a walk in the ninth for the Drillers. Leadoff man Taylor Featherston went 4-for-4 with a pair of doubles, a walk and two runs scored, while Harold Riggins homered, drove in three runs and fell a triple shy of the cycle.