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When Sunny Golloway dialed his phone last June, he hit the digits with confidence.
He was, after all, offering the USA national team a chance to add right-hander Jonathan Gray, who had just finished his sophomore season at Oklahoma with a 3.16 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 102 2/3 innings. His stuff -- a mid-to-upper 90s fastball, a mid-80s slider and a changeup -- was even more impressive than that.
Golloway was the 2002 USA national team's pitching coach, and he wanted Gray to have the same "once-in-a-lifetime" experience on baseball's most prestigious amateur summer team. So he called some acquaintances, saying you've got to take my guy.
"They didn't have any interest," Golloway says. "That was right after we played at South Carolina [in the super regionals], where their players were saying Jonathan was the best guy they saw all year."
|For Oklahoma ace Jonathan Gray, the big leagues can wait. He's got more pressing matters on his mind.|
Golloway didn't understand, because he believed Gray was the country's best pitcher, Stanford right-hander Mark Appel included, let alone worthy of at least making the USA staff.
"I know Appel and some other guys got an awful lot of hype, and Jon didn't," Golloway says. "But I won't sugarcoat it -- [USA Baseball] never called back. Just no interest."
That was 10 months ago.
In a little less than two months, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 MLB draft will likely come down to two names: Mark Appel and Jonathan Gray.
"The best-kept secret in Central Oklahoma" -- Chandler, Okla., town website
Gray, a hulking 6-foot-4, 240-pound man, grew up in the physical obscurity of Chandler, a town of less than 4,000 people almost 50 miles outside of Oklahoma City. He loved country activities.
"I was never in town," Gray says. "I was always out in the woods with my brother Jack, some of his friends maybe, fishing and hunting. We'd hunt duck, rabbit, you know, small-game stuff."
He's played baseball as far back as he can remember, but Gray didn't grow up with the familiar big-league dream. When told that Golloway sees some young Roger Clemens in him, Gray sheepishly responds, "That's great, but I've never seen Roger Clemens pitch."
Kids in Chandler spent their summer days actually playing the sports they loved, not staring at them on some screen, and maybe this helped Gray. Maybe it allowed him to develop without the weight of future expectations, of promise that needed to be fulfilled lest he live to regret his waste.
It surely provided the natural freedom of the seasons -- fall was for football, winter for basketball, spring for baseball, down time for shootin' small game. This mix, it seems, provided Gray a platform for his personality. He's polite and mellow-mannered, except when it comes to sports. He needed a variety of releases.
"He has a burning desire that not all athletes have to compete and win," Golloway says.
It's probably not a surprise that, until his senior year of high school, Gray also played basketball and reveled in the physicality of football. His brother is a linebacker at Northeastern State. Gray was a tight end and defensive end at Chandler High. "I loved defense and chasing after people," he says.
This stealth aggression eventually would manifest itself on the mound, becoming the mantel on which Gray's all-world talent was propped up and displayed, but Gray needed to get to a place where people would see him. He needed to get to Norman.
Gray isn't a late bloomer -- he threw in the low-90s in high school and was drafted by the Royals in the 13th round in 2010 -- but rather a continual one.
"Every year, I've added velocity," Gray says about his heater that has cracked 100 mph this season. "It's never leveled out."
Golloway saw that projection in high school. He liked the big body, the big arm.
"He needed to develop his secondary pitches, command and control," Golloway says. "And we didn't want him to throw out of the bullpen; we wanted him to start."
So Golloway encouraged Gray to spend a year in junior college at Eastern Oklahoma State, where Aric Thomas -- who played at OU and is now on Golloway's staff -- was the head coach in 2011. It was possible that Gray would add even more velocity and attract pro teams again -- which he did, as his fastball reached the mid-90s and the Yankees took him in the 10th round in 2011 -- but Golloway wasn't worried about that. If a guy wanted to be a Sooner, then a guy would be a Sooner, he thought.
Turns out, Gray cherishes the university, always has. His 13-year-old sister, Brooke, wants to play softball at OU, so Gray occasionally has current players call her and leave messages about continuing to work hard and chasing her goals. That's Gray, as Oklahoma as the dry wind sweeping across the plains.
This made Gray the perfect guy to lead the Sooners when he arrived last season. He kept adding velocity, ticking into the upper-90s, and tweaked the grip on his slider, running his middle finger down the right side of the horseshoe. Now, Gray says, it's faster -- up to 87 mph -- and the break is tighter. When thrown right, the pitch induces embarrassment and fear. He developed better feel with his changeup.
By the end of the 2012 season, Gray began to look like the monster arm he is now. More importantly, he embraced that talent, allowing the defensive end to come through in spurts. That led to one of Golloway's favorite Gray stories, one that helps explain a large chunk of Gray's success this season.
"The day of that South Carolina game he pitched last year, he came down to the pregame meal fully dressed in his uniform," Golloway says. "I thought he was nervous. As it turns out, after he ate, he went door-by-door [in the hotel] in his uniform, telling his teammates, 'Don't get on the bus unless you're absolutely certain we're going to win.'
"When you step out there like that, you have to back it, and boy he did, throwing [five] scoreless before the rains came."
There's nothing left for Gray to do to his draft stock this season other than not mess it up. Everybody knows he's gone in June.
"He's going to Houston or the Cubs, No. 1 or No. 2," Golloway says assuredly.
For the Sooners, Gray has a lot left to give beyond his 1.19 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 68 1/3 innings. He'll make five more regular-season starts and then try to pitch Oklahoma to Omaha, which is why he doesn't want to focus much on the draft. "There's just so much time left," he says.
In quiet moments, Golloway looks ahead, though. He's aware of what he will lose after this season. This isn't a negative. It's what has made Gray a great Sooner, it's what has made him a must-see prospect, it's what will likely make him, if healthy, a great pro.
"Jon has that refuse-to-lose attitude, and that's meant a lot to our team," Golloway says. "His competitive nature is much more prevalent now. That's why when that fire burns, it burns so bright. Put him in a uniform and on a mound, and you don't want to be on the other side of that."
Passed over by Team USA, here comes big Jon Gray, out of the best-kept secret in Central Oklahoma, out of the Chandler woods, ignored by nobody anymore.
No. 13 Oklahoma sits atop the Big 12 by half a game over Baylor and Kansas State, and the talent gap is wider than that in the conference. Yet it's Baylor with the most intriguing position to a regular-season title.
The Bears won their series against the Sooners last weekend, taking two of three. They hold a tiebreaker against Kansas State after taking two of three against the Wildcats in March. Now here's their final four conference weekends: at TCU this weekend, home against Texas, at Kansas, at Texas Tech. That's nine games against the bottom three teams in the Big 12, plus three against the Jayhawks.
Baylor should be able to manage that stretch and have a chance at the Big 12 regular-season title. More importantly, at 19-18, the Bears' NCAA tournament hopes could depend on it. If Baylor is going to win a league title, it will do it on the mound. A couple arms to watch:
Senior left-hander Crayton Bare has a 2.62 ERA with 34 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings. He works out of the bullpen but has pitched the third-most innings and made 16 appearances. "He's 84-86 mph, not a power guy," Baylor coach Steve Smith said. "The development of his cutter has been the biggest difference, because it has allowed him to get in on right-handed hitters. I actually prefer him to face right-handers, because it's tougher for them to stop their bats on a ball that's coming into them."
Junior right-hander Dillon Newman has a 2.83 ERA in 57 1/3 innings as a starter, with 43 strikeouts and only two walks. He has a quality changeup that acts more like a split, diving down and under bats. "He relied on that a lot when he came here," Smith said. "In the fall, we developed his cutter and curveball, and that's allowed him to get through a lineup a few times."
The best series this weekend is in the ACC: No. 6 Florida State at No. 8 Virginia. The Seminoles have a one-game lead over Clemson in the Atlantic Division, while the Cavaliers trail North Carolina by 2.5 games in the Coastal.
After going to Charlottesville, FSU has three ACC series left: home against Wake Forest, at NC State, home against Clemson. It would be a thrill to see the Atlantic race come down to the final three games of the regular season in Tallahassee, where Scott Sitz could wrap up a strong case for ACC pitcher of the year. He has a 1.04 ERA in nine starts this season. The only thing I could see preventing Sitz from winning the award: innings. He's averaging fewer than six per start.
For Virginia, after playing FSU, it will go to Virginia Tech and then play Duke at home before ending the regular season with three games in Chapel Hill, N.C., hopefully with a Coastal title to play for.
Larry Lee knows quite well what Cal State Fullerton's pitchers are capable of as his No. 22 Cal Poly Mustangs prepare for their three-game series with the No. 4 Titans this weekend in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
"Their pitching stats are off the charts," Lee said by phone this week. "They throw strikes, have good secondary pitches and come right at you."
It's a big weekend for Cal Poly, because it trails Fullerton by two games in the Big West race, and the rest of the Mustangs' schedule is filled with hurdles or opportunities, depending how you look at it.
UC Riverside and Long Beach State are tied with Cal Poly in the conference race, and UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge are one game behind the Mustangs. After Fullerton, they still have all four of those teams left on the schedule. Cal Poly can make a run at a league title if it can somehow find some offense, beginning with this weekend against the Titans.
"We need to get on base to start off innings, but right now we're a very average offensive team," Lee said. "We hope that will change, but it hasn't yet."
We've talked a lot this season about John Savage's talent -- specifically on the mound -- at UCLA, and rightfully so. The No. 11 Bruins are always going to be in a series, because they can roll out Adam Plutko, Nick Vander Tuig, Grant Watson and an array of other arms.
But as they visit No. 7 Oregon this weekend for a three-game series, it's time for the offense to do its part. Freshman Trent Chatterton (.313) is the only Bruin hitting better than .300, and only three Bruins have on-base percentages of .400 or better -- light for the college game.
Going into Eugene, Ore., UCLA is 3.5 games behind Oregon in the Pac-12 race. The Ducks can put a dent into UCLA's hopes of a league title by taking two of three -- or sweeping, of course -- this weekend. A sweep of UCLA could be the cherry the Ducks needs to put on top of their national seed case at the end of the season.
Texas A&M visits No. 12 Arkansas this weekend, which gives us an opportunity to highlight a Razorbacks pitcher not named Ryne Stanek.
Astin, 6-1 and 200 pounds, doesn't offer nearly as much upside as Stanek and isn't a first-round prospect. Astin works primarily with one pitch -- a two-seam fastball that will reach the low-90s with good sink -- but will also flash a mid-80s slider. I'm intrigued by Astin's nine walks in 44 2/3 innings this season and would like to see him developed as multi-inning reliever in some pro system.
With no high-quality second pitch, let alone a third, Astin does not profile as a starter in pro ball. But what if, as a reliever, he commanded his sinker at 90-94 mph, his slider had tight break at 85-87 and he threw a ton of strikes? That's a guy that might be able to pitch in a big league bullpen relatively quickly and would provide value as a mid-round pick.
Today in Omaha: High of 37 degrees, cloudy with rain and snow showers. Fifty-eight days until CWS Game 1.