Bakersfield, Calif. -- As the Colorado Rockies' High-A affiliate Modesto Nuts readied for the final game of their season-opening road trip on Wednesday morning against the Bakersfield Blaze, right-handed pitcher Jon Gray was out on the field early, throwing a side session with minor league starter Carlos Polanco.
Gray (PuRP No. 1) would have broken camp with the big league club last week if not for an abdominal strain that temporarily halted his throwing program late in spring training. Now, having made a rehab start with the Nuts on Sunday in which he faced 18 hitters and threw more than 50 pitches, he is readying for a second appearance in Modesto after the surprising injury.
"I was so excited for the season, and that was a really frustrating injury," Gray told me at Bakersfield's Sam Lynn Ballpark on Wednesday morning. "Something crazy like this doesn’t happen very often, and it’s pretty frustrating to set you back a little bit. But at the same time it could have been worse, so I’m happy that I’m back on the mound in this short a time."
Gray struck out three and got five more ground balls in his 4.2 innings of work on Sunday, and after successfully getting through that first appearance, the righty seemed pleased with how his body and arm has reacted this week.
"I feel really good, no pain at all, and I'm definitely 100%," Gray said. "Nothing really surprised me. I didn’t feel like I was that far off track at all. I threw fifty-something pitches, and I feel like I could have done more."
The plan from here for Gray begins with Friday night's start in Modesto, the Nuts' second home game of the season, against the Stockton Ports. He said he's on an 85-pitch limit that evening for the club.
"I’m just going to take it one step at a time," Gray said. "They are going to raise my pitch count, and if I handle it pretty well, I feel like I’ll be back up in Denver from there."
Of course, this isn't the first time Gray has been in Modesto—and his familiarity with and success in the California League may be working to his benefit this week. In 2013, Gray started five games for the Nuts, going 4-0 with a 0.75 ERA, with 36 strikeouts in just 24 innings.
"It definitely brings back some good memories," Gray reminisced about the quirky California League. "I definitely remember more coming back here than some other places. It was a lot of fun being here."
At the end of our conversation, I jokingly told Gray I didn't want to see him again in the California League after this week. He laughed, and acknowledged the hope that his year ahead would be filled with good health and on-field growth despite the hiccup to start.
"I'm just so excited for this season," he responded. "I can't wait. I can't wait to get going."