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Rockies’ Jon Gray thrilled by return of fastball velocity

Three strikeouts, two walks, and one earned run on three hits across 2 2/3 innings.

And, oh yes, 97. As in miles per hour for his fastball.

It was the latter number that mattered to Rockies right-hander Jon Gray after he made his first Cactus League start of spring on Sunday.

“I guess there’s some things I’ve got to clean up in my delivery,” Gray said on a day when the Rockies lost, 3-1, to the Rangers in Surprise, Ariz. “But the good news is (that) all the stuff that I’ve been working on is paying off. I’m (getting) to the plate a lot faster, and the fastball’s got more jump on it now.”

Gray added that he felt good enough to start a regular-season game “right now.” He threw 60 pitches Sunday and is scheduled to hike that number to 75 in his next outing.

Gray’s disappointing 2020 season (2-4, 6.69 ERA) was compounded by a shoulder impingement and inflammation that landed him on the injured list Sept. 4. According to FanGraphs, from 2019 to 2020, Gray’s four-seam fastball average dipped from 96.1 mph to 94.1. The speed of his slider fell from 88.5 mph to 86.4. Add in the dip in strikeouts from 9.0 per nine innings to 5.08, and the right-hander admitted he was a bit worried, even though the Rockies never thought he suffered major damage to his shoulder.

“Yeah, for sure,” Gray said when asked if the shoulder woes concerned him. “Baseball just wasn’t any fun, (when) you couldn’t do things with your God-given abilities. And when they don’t show up it kind of makes you feel a little worthless. Like, what are you doing here?

“So I just wanted to get that (velocity) back and I’m glad to see it come around. And no matter what, I’m gonna have some fun this year.”

Rodgers update. Hamstring strains are difficult to evaluate. It’s even tougher to judge a player’s timetable for a return to action. But manager Bud Black said Sunday that the Rockies’ training staff is encouraged about the status of second baseman Brendan Rodgers.

Rodgers injured his right hamstring during a steal attempt in the fifth inning of Saturday’s game against Seattle.

“He’s better today,” Black told MLB.com. “Some of the things (trainers) look for — if he feels (the strain) walking, if he feels it in certain movements … he doesn’t.”

Rodgers, the clear frontrunner to be Colorado’s starter at second base, is having a good camp. He’s batting .348 (8-for-23), with a 1.052 OPS, a home run and five RBIs in 10 games.

If Rodgers is not ready to play by the April 1 opener, outfielder Garrett Hampson and utility man Chris Owings are right-handed hitters who can be plugged in. Or the Rockies can move third baseman Ryan McMahon back to second — his position the last two years — and put Josh Fuentes at third.

Bird’s eye view. With 15 Cactus League games remaining, Greg Bird, 28, feels he’s in a good place to make the big-league roster. The Grandview High School graduate helped his cause Saturday by hitting a walk-off solo homer to beat the Mariners.

“First and foremost, I feel great,” said Bird, whose career has been derailed by injuries. “It’s been a good camp. I feel like I checked a lot of boxes early. Just getting that game-action back, I needed it for a lot of reasons … to just be exposed to it. Early, I don’t think the results were there, the timing was off. But there were a lot of good signs for me.”

Through the first 11 games, Bird was hitting just .150 (3-for-20) but the Rockies like his approach at the plate. If Bird makes the team, it would likely be as a left-handed bat off the bench with occasional starts at first base.

Various injuries limited Bird to 186 games with the Yankees from 2015-19. He didn’t play last year because of a calf injury sustained after signing with Texas, followed by a positive COVID-19 test after signing with Philadelphia.

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