CLEVELAND -- The New York Yankees' Sonny Gray will take the mound Thursday night for Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Progressive Field guided by the Tao of Bartolo Colon.
Colon has influenced a lot of players over his two decades pitching in the majors, though it's hard to imagine any more different from him than Gray. While Gray grew up in Tennessee with football as his first love, Colon excelled at baseball as a kid in the Dominican. Gray, 27, is young. Colon, 44, is not. Gray is slender. Colon is famously not.
But as a rookie in Oakland, Gray watched Colon like a middle schooler idolizing a high school senior.
The main lesson he learned from Colon: patience. These days, when Gray pitches, he's never in a rush. That wasn’t always the case, though. Gray, a two-time state champion quarterback in high school who could have played collegiately at Colorado, is a tad hyper by nature.
Now, Gray takes about as much time as any pitcher in baseball between deliveries. The trait came from Colon, who was a mere 40 in 2013, and an 18-game winner for the A's the year Gray debuted with Oakland.
“It was the calmness,” Gray said. “I was always a guy who was very high energy, very fast. I’m at my best when I’m able to slow myself down, take a large, overall game into small individual moments. Basically, just slow yourself down. Have a plan and know what you want to do and try to accomplish it.”
The Yankees might need to lean on Gray a little bit more Thursday. Top relievers Chad Green and David Robertson will likely be unavailable for Game 1 of the ALDS because of their heavy workloads in the wild-card game. The Yankees will have Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, but the bullpen will be short-staffed.
On Tuesday, the Yankees vanquished Colon’s Twins in the wild-card game. Before it, Colon talked about how Gray had the desire to learn from a pitcher. Colon showed off the wisdom that attracted Gray.
“The thing about young pitchers like that is: It is not about how much I want to teach them, it is about how much they want to learn,” Colon said through an interpreter. “Sonny Gray was one of those guys [that wanted to learn].”
Gray never considered skipping college to go to the pros straight from high school, and Colon noticed Gray was a student. Colon saw Gray wouldn't go home early when Colon pitched a night game, even if Gray was scheduled to start a day game the next day.
“Usually, a pitcher would leave in the third inning, but he would stay throughout the whole game to see how I was pitching and studying me,” Colon said. “I think that was the thing that he had in his favor, how dedicated he was to learning.”
Gray learned very quickly. By the time he, Colon and the A’s were in the ALDS, Gray was the Game 2 starter, matching the Tigers' Justin Verlander in a memorable duel. Verlander went seven innings, striking out 11 and walking one, while Gray went eight, striking out nine and walking two. Neither pitcher allowed a run and each gave up four hits.
The A’s won the game and, when Game 5 came around, they turned to the student over his mentor in the decisive game.
“I was supposed to pitch that game, and they bumped me for him,” Colon said.
Gray allowed three runs in five innings, while his teammates didn’t score off Verlander. The A's went home for the winter, but Gray had grown as a pitcher.
“I was lucky enough to be on the team with Bartolo and watch him go out there and handle his business,” Gray said. “He showed very little emotion. You know what you are going to get from him every time. Just because he showed little emotion doesn’t mean he wasn’t geared up and ready to go at all times. I was very lucky to have him in Oakland.”
Colon had an All-Star season with the A’s in 2013. It was the only year the two were teammates. In 2015, Gray became an All-Star for the first time.
In 2017, Gray moved from one team to another -- traded to one of Colon’s former teams, the Yankees. Gray packed up the lessons from Oakland and brought them to the Bronx.
“He doesn’t talk a lot,” Gray said of Colon. “You watch a guy who has been around for that long, how he goes about his days. When it was my turn to pitch, I knew, ‘You just go out there and pitch, man.'"
That's what Gray will try to do in Cleveland, where Colon started his major league career 20 years ago. The Tao of Colon will be alive in the 2017, even with the Twins gone.