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Gray turns in longest outing of season

Rockies' top prospect pitches into seventh, continues May turnaround
May 21, 2015

Jon Gray wasn't immune to some tough moments in his own head during a difficult April, but with the latest in a series of steps forward under his belt, the right-hander is rediscovering confidence in his arsenal and in himself.

The Rockies' top prospect allowed one unearned run on six hits while pitching into the seventh inning for the first time this season as Triple-A Albuquerque downed Round Rock, 5-1.

Gray is no stranger to slow starts. In his debut in 2013, Gray allowed three runs in three innings for Rookie-level Grand Junction. Last year, the University of Oklahoma product yielded nine earned runs over 6 2/3 innings in his first two starts for Double-A Tulsa. This season, the righty slogged through a rough first month by going 0-3 with a 10.70 ERA for the Isotopes, but as the calendar shifted to May,'s No. 16 overall prospect turned a page as well.

"The big difference is working with a lot of confidence," Gray said after Thursday's win. "I'm making pitches. I'm not trying to blow the ball by guys [which] sometimes gets me in trouble. It's gotten me in trouble before. I'm also throwing secondary pitches for strikes. They'd been taking good swings on fastballs early this year, so that was something I really had to do. I'm able to do that now."

After giving up 22 runs last month, Gray (2-4) allowed just eight combined over his first three starts in May. Gray continued his strong stretch against the Express, setting the tone by working out of a jam in the first inning.

After rehabbing Major Leaguer Josh Hamilton hit a one-out double that pushed Tomas Telis to third, Jake Smolinski hit a bouncer to Albuquerque third baseman Tim Smalling that resulted in a fielder's choice cutting down Telis at home. Gray followed by retiring 11 of the next 12 batters he faced.

"I think it makes you a little bit sharper," Gray said of going against Round Rock's fourth-ranked Pacific Coast League offense. "You don't really get lazy with pitches because you know any time, they can hurt you. It really makes you crack down and focus with each pitch."

In turning his season around, Gray has emphasized throwing his secondary offerings with a renewed sense of conviction.

"That's been a big part of the game," the 23-year-old said. "There were times today when I threw 2-0, 2-1 sliders, full-count sliders, even changeups. The hitters don't really know what to think after that because you'll throw it any time."

Facing five-time American League All-Star Hamilton, Gray acknowledged feeling an extra surge of energy, but was able to stick to his plan. After Hamilton's double, Gray retired the 2010 AL Most Valuable Player in their final two matchups.

"I think that's what can hurt you, when you think you can put a little more on the fastball or something like that," he said. "What you end up doing is flattening out your pitches. I think that's all it is. It was all location with him. The first time I faced him tonight, I went up and in with two strikes, and he tomahawked the ball down the right-field line. After that, the next two times I faced him, I stayed away. He was able to hit the ball up in the air (on flyouts in the third and sixth). It was all a learning experience."

After pitching through the fifth in just two of his four April outings, Gray has gone at least five innings in all four May starts, while dropping his ERA from 10.70 entering the month to 6.47 after Thursday's win. The start marked the first time he pitched into the seventh since last Aug. 2 with Tulsa.

"It's kind of hard not to panic when stuff doesn't go your way and it ends up extending to a couple of weeks, a month," he said. "But in your mind, you've got to tell yourself you're good enough to be at this level and pitch at this level and do good. I think that's what it is, just staying focused, not trying to mix things up and change things."

Gray struck out three batters while walking one. After posting strikeout-per-nine-inning ratios of over 10 batters in his final season at Oklahoma and his 2013 campaign with Grand Junction and Class A Advanced Modesto, Gray's number dropped to 8.2 K's per nine last year and sits at 6.9 this season. That drop doesn't concern the former Sooner.

"It's all about getting outs right now," he said. "If I can find a way to mix [strikeouts] in with what I'm doing now, maybe use that fastball with two strikes, that would be awesome. It's something I still need to work on, but for right now, it's just all getting outs."

Texas' No. 11 prospect Anthony Ranaudo (3-1) suffered his first loss in the Rangers system, charged with five runs -- one earned -- on seven hits in five innings.

Tyler Maun is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun.