PHOENIX — They are October bookends now, the worst outing of Jon Gray’s career and his greatest triumph, both on the same mound.
Six years ago here, the Arizona Diamondbacks flattened Gray in his postseason debut. It was the only time he has ever allowed seven hits without collecting even five outs. On Monday he earned a World Series win, rescuing the Texas Rangers with three shutout innings after Max Scherzer left with back spasms.
“This is like that chance for revenge, right?” Gray said, after the Rangers’ 3-1 victory, which put them up, two games to one, in the World Series. “That’s kind of how it feels to me. I only had one opportunity and it was very, very brief, a long time ago. To be able to come back in here and feel that same energy, that same noise, in the same spot, and do a really good job — do the opposite — it meant the world.”
You might say that Gray — who lost that playoff debut in a wild-card game for the Colorado Rockies — exorcized a ghost on Halloween eve. But that would be silly. These are just baseball games, after all. The supernatural is serious business.
Gray, 31, is something of a ghostbuster. He came, he saw, he kicked the Diamondbacks’ rattling tail — three innings, one hit, no walks, three strikeouts — but that stuff is easily explainable. Besides pitching, his passion is the paranormal. That’s more complicated.
“Anything unexplained, that stuff interests me because I think there’s something to it,” Gray said. “There’s things I’ve seen in my life that I can’t explain. And I don’t think I’ll ever get an explanation for it.”
As a rookie in 2016, Gray explored Milwaukee’s fabled Pfister Hotel — considered by generations of major leaguers to be haunted — with a K2 meter, a device that is said to detect anomalies in the electromagnetic field caused by spiritual activity.
He didn’t find anything, he said, but then again, he was actively looking. The supernatural tends to surprise you.
“The only two things I’ve ever seen in my life that did not make any sense, I was not ready for it,” he said. “They really caught me off guard.”
And those were …
“I saw — I don’t know if it was a lady — but I saw a person in my room when I was like 10 years old, just standing there,” Gray said. “It freaked me out. I walked right into my parents’ room. I tried not to make eye contact. It was crazy.”
The second encounter, Gray said, happened more recently.
“Just three years ago, I had a UFO sighting,” he said. “I’m not kidding you, man. In Denver, of all places. I’ve spent so many nights out in these rural places, and in my backyard, I’m taking my dogs out, and I immediately turn and look north and see this thing flying at me and — oh, man. We could talk about it if you want, because I don’t mind.”
“So I’m taking my dogs out right at 9:00. Dark. Not very many clouds, kind of a clear night. I let them do their thing, and I just turn and look over my fence to the north and I see these blue circles, six of them in a V shape, except one of them had an extra circle on it, like the wing or something was longer. It didn’t really make any sense to me, but thinking back on it, one side was longer, it had an extra light.
“And this thing flew from, like, one horizon, over my head, and it was just gone. It was the fastest thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen flyovers, I’m into aviation, I love all that stuff. It’s awesome. But the blue was the weirdest blue I’ve ever seen in my life … like all blue, and there was no light coming out of the circle. It was, like, very contained in the circle. And it was locked in, and it was right over my head, silent-ish. It scared the hell out of me.
“It gives me chills thinking about it right now. But I have myself on video, because we have a backyard camera, so I’m watching myself on the video — “oh my God, oh my God” — and I’m taking my phone out of my pocket, and it’s gone. Like, in six seconds it was gone. And ever since then I’ve been thinking about that and thinking, ‘What the hell?’ I just don’t understand it.”
The roof was open at Chase Field for Game 3, but there were no reported UFO sightings — not by Gray, at least. He had a more earthly job to do: After a shaky September and just one inning of work in the playoffs, he has become an important weapon in manager Bruce Bochy’s bullpen.
Gray knew he might be needed early on Monday, and started getting loose after Scherzer took a comebacker off his elbow in the second inning. When Scherzer’s back flared up after three innings, Gray — who dealt with forearm tightness in late September — was ready.
“His stamina and strength has built up on him,” Bochy said. “We only had him for an inning there, but each time out he’s just getting stronger. So we’re able to use (for) him multiple innings. Went three tonight — he probably could have gone more, to be honest.”
Gray’s regular season was adequate — he went 9-8 with a 4.12 ERA in 29 starts — but he still profiles as a power pitcher. He’s averaged more than a strikeout per inning over a nine-year career, and the hope was that his stuff could play up in a bullpen role.
Bochy has seen this before. In the 2012 World Series, as manager of the San Francisco Giants, he expertly deployed Tim Lincecum as a middle-innings bridge in Games 1 and 3 of a sweep against the Detroit Tigers.
Lincecum was past his prime but could dominate for short bursts — and both times, he followed the starter with two and a third hellacious innings of scoreless relief. Ordinary became extraordinary, just as it did for Gray on Monday.
“He feels good and healthy and he’s got strong conviction with all his pitches,” catcher Jonah Heim said. “You see his heater up to 97, 98, and he’s got that wipeout slider. So his stuff’s been really sharp.”
Gray worked efficiently, needing just 30 pitches (25 strikes) in his three innings. He used his curveball once but otherwise stuck with his slider and fastball, which reached 97.8 mph when he fanned Corbin Carroll in the sixth. Gray threw 2,393 pitches in the regular season, and only three were harder than that.
“I feel like I haven’t had to be so fine with everything,” Gray said, “because everything has a little extra life on it.”
It was the version of Gray that scouts hoped for in 2011, when the Rockies drafted him third overall out of the University of Oklahoma. His best season for Colorado was the 2017 wild-card year, when he was 10-4 with a 3.67 ERA before his flop in October. Gray was 25 then and let the atmosphere overwhelm him.
“I tried to ride the energy that night, I remember everything felt so good,” Gray said. “But, then again, I was a little fast. I wasn’t really thinking about executing. Everything got kind of out of whack.
“That’s something I’ve really put into focus coming out of the bullpen — slow everything down, one pitch at a time, execute. Once you get that first out, you can harness the energy and then it becomes fun.”
His first out of Game 3 was the toughest: Gabriel Moreno saw seven pitches and whiffed on a slider. After that, Gray made things look easy — which they were, when you look at life the way he does.
“I think something’s happening in this world, under God’s control, that we don’t know about,” Gray said. “And maybe we’re not supposed to. But it’s interesting to me.”
Gray knows he saw something that night in his backyard. He’s still intrigued by the vision, he said, still fascinated by a cosmic query he may never answer. Pitching is elementary by comparison.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Gray said, smiling. “It makes things real simple.”
(Top photo of Jon Gray: Caitlin O’Hara / MLB Photos via Getty Images)