Scottsdale, Ariz. -- It took seven years and 176 minor league games, but Jason Gurka finally got the call he'd been working towards last August when the Colorado Rockies promoted him from Triple-A Albuquerque to make his Major League debut. And while he pitched sparingly and—as he admits—poorly in the final month, even the briefest of big league experiences is eye-opening.
"It was finally just breaking through last year," Gurka tells me in front of his locker in the Rockies' Scottsdale clubhouse. "I pretty much did the same things I have been doing, and then I just got lucky and got an opportunity."
For the Texan and former longtime Baltimore Orioles farmhand, that opportunity has now translated into a surprising spring with the Rockies. Entering Friday, he's struck out 19 hitters and allowed only two runs across fewer than ten innings in Cactus League play. Is this the same guy Rockies fans saw struggle at the end of last summer?
"I’ve changed a lot of mechanical stuff trying to get more of an angle on my pitches, because I’m not that tall," Gurka reveals, "The pitching coaches came to me and said I needed to create more of a downhill plane, and not just for strikeouts, but for ground balls, especially if I pitch in Colorado. I was releasing the ball too low before, and now it’s coming from eye level down into the zone."
Gurka is fairly low-key about the change, but moving a release point, perfecting that adjustment, and then excelling on the mound in game situations against big league hitters is a massive move. Interestingly, from what it sounds like—and how Gurka has looked—that adjustment came quickly.
"I think I threw one bullpen and then I took it into the game," Gurka says, noting that may bode well for sustained big league time where daily adjustments are a fact of life. "It shows I’m coachable, and I’m here to learn and listen. Even though I’m kind of getting up there in age, I’m still taking stuff in and learning every day."
The change's success has thus far been confirmed by Gurka's numbers during the month of March. I know; spring training stats probably don't matter to you, and they don't count in the record books. Just don't think they are meaningless to a guy on the bubble like the lefty reliever.
"The numbers may not matter, but it matters mentally," Gurka argues. "You know you can do it. You go in with a lot of confidence, to the season, and that just carries on."
Having seen the pitcher briefly last summer, Rockies manager Walt Weiss agrees with Gurka's mental self-assessment.
"From the neck up, I think he just feels like he belongs now," Weiss tells me when I ask what's different about Gurka this spring. "Last year was a bit of a whirlwind for him. But It takes some time to feel like you belong."
"And he’s had a heck of a spring, that’s for sure," Weiss adds. "He looks very comfortable to me on the mound."
That comfort came in time for Gurka too, having never pitched in the Pacific Coast League, let alone the Major Leagues, after spending his entire career in the Orioles' organization. Even adjusting to altitude was a challenge for him last summer—and not in the typical way you might imagine.
"To me the big thing with the altitude was taking care of my body," Gurka says. "You don’t heal as fast. And when you’re running in from the bullpen to the mound, take your time, because you run out of breath being in the altitude."
"See, I’m not from altitude," he adds. "After getting used to that, it’s basically just pitching. Trying to keep the ball down and trying to keep it in the yard."
He learned quickly about that during his brief big league call-up last summer, too, when he allowed 16 hits in not even eight full innings of work.
"I know now that it’s tough," Gurka admits of his reaction to facing big league hitters for the first time. "You can’t out-stuff people. You can’t just throw it up there. You have to set up your pitches, because you’re not better than everybody. You have to pitch and hit your spots, and I worked on that, and it’s working out this spring."
From Weiss' perspective, Gurka is making things difficult for the Rockies as they try to finalize their 25-man roster for Opening Day on Monday. The skipper, who said there are still ongoing internal debates about how many relievers to have in the bullpen for the start of the season, as well as who those relievers should be, credited Gurka for keeping his name firmly in the conversation.
"He’s still in camp, so all of the decisions from here on out are difficult," Weiss concedes. "We have a few more days to evaluate things. We have to balance what we’ve seen in spring training, what we’ve seen before, and their track record."
Gurka obviously wants to be in the big leagues, but more than anything feels like he's beginning to prove to the Rockies who he really is—and it's not the pitcher the club saw late last summer.
"If I do happen to make it, I can show them I’m going to pitch better than I did last year," Gurka says, "and I can continue what I’m doing this spring."
"Last year I didn’t know anybody, and it was uncomfortable," Gurka adds, explaining how even through the stress of fighting for a spot, he's more relaxed the second time around. "It was like the first day of school at a new school or something. But this year I know everybody, and I’m friends with everybody, so it makes it a lot better. A lot less stressful."
Maybe there's just one more stressful point Gurka wants to get across this season: no matter what happened in that extra inning game in Los Angeles last September, he's not a right fielder.
"More people remember me for being a right fielder than for pitching," he concedes, laughing. "I didn’t do too well last year, but hopefully this year I can make them see that I’m a pitcher, and not an outfielder."
Weiss, on the other hand, is leaving the door wide open for a role as a two-way player.
"When you talk about versatility, he’s part of that," the manager jokes, laughing about whether he'd put Gurka in right field again. "It's possible."