Nuts pitcher throws strikes, beats Ports

bvanderbeek@modbee.comAugust 3, 2013 

    alternate textBrian VanderBeek
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: Sports, including preps, colleges and the Modesto Nuts
    Bio: Brian VanderBeek joined The Bee in 1996 after previously working at The Home News-Tribune and The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, the (Dover) Delaware State News and the Hanford Sentinel. He is a graduate of Ripon High, Modesto Junior College and holds a degree in journalism from Fresno State.
    Recent stories written by Brian
    On Twitter: @modestobeek

The Colorado Rockies have sent enough live arms to Modesto over nine seasons to fill several major league pitching rotations, except for one common flaw.

Most of them, while being able to activate the third digit on the radar gun, couldn't consistently throw strikes in the California League.

That's what makes Jon Gray special, and that's why the Rockies drafted him No. 3 overall less than two months ago.

In his High-A debut Friday night, Gray limited Stockton to two hits over five innings, allowing only two hits and no walks against seven strikeouts, and earned his first professional win as the Nuts clipped the Ports 5-0.

"Control is something I've worked on a lot recently," Gray said. "It's definitely helped me a lot, allowed me to move up levels and separated me from other guys in college. It's always been one of my biggest stats and something I'll continue to work on."

Since Gray threw 126 innings this spring while earning first team All-American honors at the University of Oklahoma, he'll be limited to five innings in each start he makes this season for the Nuts — just like Eddie Butler was in his 13 Modesto starts.

In fact, Gray took Butler's spot in the rotation as the lanky redhead was promoted to Double-A Tulsa on Friday.

"I certainly understand why the Rockies are doing that," Gray said. "It can be frustrating if you're competitive and you're doing well and you want to go back out there to go for a complete-game win. But this is in the best interest of everybody that I throw only five. It's a little different."

Prior to this outing, Gray's pro career consisted of four starts and 13 innings of work for Grand Junction of the Pioneer League. In none of the four did Gray show anything close to the finesse or enjoy the kind of success he had against Stockton.

"That was very impressive," said Nuts' manager Fred Nelson. "He showed no degree of urgency. He just took the ball and when he threw back-to-back pitches that weren't in the strike zone he got back to the count real quick.

"He showed a lot of trust in his stuff and his command. It looks so effortless — like he's throwing batting practice."

Ryan Arrowood, making his Nuts debut after being promoted from Asheville, breezed through the next two innings, then Will Rankin finished up to preserve Modesto's fifth shutout victory of the season.

It kept the Nuts one game behind San Jose in the second half race. More important was that it pulled them within two games of Stockton and three games of Visalia in the season-long standings as the three teams continue to battle for two playoff spots.

Stockton starter James Simmons, himself a first-round pick of Oakland in 2007, breezed through the first three innings with even greater ease than Gray.

The righty — battling back from a 2010 shoulder injury — kept the Nuts off-balance with a fastball that topped out at 90 mph and a slow curveball. That worked until Brian Humphries timed one of those curves and sent it over the fence in right for a 1-0 lead in the fourth.

Niko Gallego made it 2-0 in the fifth with a two-out RBI single, then Modesto chased Simmons during a three-run sixth, when Trevor Story led off with a double and scored on Will Swanner's single.

Harold Riggins followed by hitting the next pitch deep into the night, well over the fence just left of dead-center, for a 5-0 lead.

Gray was gone by then, having left a strong first impression on the crowd of 3,839 at John Thurman Field.

"This guy, at least tonight, was a different guy (than most young power pitchers,)" Nelson said. "It makes you look forward to watching him pitch again."

If the Nuts stay on their rotation's schedule, Gray's next start will come Thursday at home against Lancaster — the highest-scoring team in all of professional baseball.

"In every pro start I've made I've been able to pick up something that I've been able to take to the next start," Gray said. "There's still so much to learn."

• NUTS NOTES — After the game, Nuts' ace Dan Winkler was informed he'd also been promoted to Double-A Tulsa. Winkler leaves with 12-5 record and a 2.97 ERA. His spot in the rotation is likely to be taken by Tyler Anderson, a first-round pick in 2011, who began the season with eight starts in Modesto before going down with a sore shoulder.

Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter @modestobeek

Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service