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Jon Gray’s return from injury is just what the Colorado Rockies need

The Rockies don’t need a savior; they need Jon Gray.

When news broke after the game on April 13 that Jon Gray’s injury wasn’t simply a nagging toe issue but a stress fracture in his foot, a deep, collective sigh rolled through Rockies’ nation. The Rockies were 7-4 at that point with a series win against the Dodgers under their belt. A promising start. But with Gray and Bettis down—and Chatwood and Anderson struggling—there was no way they could keep it up with three rookie starting pitchers, one of whom (Senzatela) hadn’t thrown a single pitch in Triple-A. “As long as they’re within 10 games of a wildcard when he gets back, it’ll be alright,” I muttered forlornly.

Now here we are—closing in on the All-Star break—and the Rockies are indeed within 10 games of a wildcard spot. In fact, they’re within 1.5 games of the division lead. They’ve ridden rookie starting pitchers, all-star performances, great defense, and resurgent closer Greg Holland to a 47-29 record. When Gray rides in sometime next week, it won’t be on a white horse. The Rockies don’t need a savior.

What they do need is exactly what Gray gives them: an anchor to the rotation. Chatwood is settling in, but Anderson is an unknown at this point. And more worrisome but not totally unexpectededly, the rookie pitchers may be starting to crack. Hoffman and Senzatela giving up 18 runs in 823 innings against the Diamondbacks was a reality-check for a team unaccustomed to competing under the pressure of a division race. Freeland, Hoffman, Marquez, and Senzatela now have a combined ERA of 5.32 in June.

Senzatela’s drop is the most concerning. Despite his shiny 9-3 record, he has a tarnished 8.32 ERA in June and has given up eight home runs in those four starts. Had he pitched five perfect innings instead of giving up nine runs on Thursday, his ERA would still be an unsightly 5.06 this month. Senzatela and the other rookie starters have been key to the Rockies’ success so far—no question—but there’s only so much they can be expected to do for an entire 162-game season.

Gray has shown he can be the Rockies’ horse. In 2016, his first full season, he had a FIP (fielding independent pitching) of 3.60, which is a better measure of his performance than his 4.26 ERA. He was sixth in the NL in SO/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) and developed a good changeup to complement his plus fastball and wipeout slider. He is the ace the Rockies’ have been looking for since Ubaldo Jimenez’ departure.

After an uneven opener this season, Gray was getting locked in. He outpitched Kershaw in his second start, giving up one earned run and 4 hits in 513 innings. Before the injury in his third start, he gave up only one hit in three innings. Building on his outstanding rookie season, Gray was poised to lead the Rockies’ pitching staff.

Then that dumb mound got him.

The good news is that Gray comes back rested and ready to a team in the thick of a divisional race. In his two rehab stints in the minors, he’s given up just one earned run in 813 innings. More notably, he has only two walks, so the command seems to be there. If his start for the Isotopes on Saturday goes well, Gray should return to the rotation next week near midseason form. If not, the Rockies have the luxury of time thanks to the depth in their rotation.

Gray will make his final rehab appearance tonight for Triple-A Albuquerque. And when Gray does finally take the mound again for the Rockies, he won’t be heralded with trumpet blasts. He won’t even have that blonde mane of rock-star hair he started the season with. What he will have is a fastball that averages 96 mph and the ability and tenacity to keep this team in it to the end. That’s exactly what the Rockies need.