The right-handed pitcher from Columbus, Ind., playing independent professional baseball has been dominant in his back of the bullpen role.
As the closer for the American Association’s Milwaukee Milkmen, Gray goes into play today (Aug. 26) with a 2-0 record, 10 saves and a 0.00 earned run average. In 24 innings, he has yet to allow a run and has struck out 41 (15.375 per nine innings) and walked 10.
“For the most part, I try to stay with myself and pitch to my strengths,” says Gray. “I’ve been able to catch some breaks.
“It’s been fun so far.”
A 6-foot-3, 200-pounder, Gray delivers a fastball, slider and change-up from a three-quarter overarm slot. The slider breaks in on left-handed batters and away from righties and the “Vulcan” change sinks.
But it’s his four-seam fastball that’s been his out pitch. It travels 90 to 93 mph and — he learned while working out in the off-season with Greg Vogt of PRP Baseball at Finch Creek Fieldhouse in Noblesville, Ind. — that it has an above-average spin rate.
The 2020 season marks Gray’s third in pro ball. He was signed as a non-drafted free agent by the Colorado Rockies in 2018 out of Florida Gulf Coast University and played rookie-level and Low Class-A ball in the Rockies system in 2018 and 2019.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Association is operating with six teams — Milwaukee, Chicago Dogs, Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks, Saint Paul Saints, Sioux Falls Canaries and Winnipeg Goldeyes — playing a 60-game schedule. When the season began, Milwaukee was one of three hubs. Later on, Chicago and Saint Paul opened back up and began hosting games. Winnipeg has been playing mostly road games.
Milwaukee is about a five-hour trip from Columbus meaning his family has been able to see him play in-person.
“They’re huge baseball fans,” says Peyton of father Billy Gray and older brother Jordan Gray. “They get to live their baseball dream through me. They’ve traveled and supported me through all these years.
From 12 to 17, Peyton played travel baseball for the Indiana Blazers. Billy was head coach of that team in the early years and Shelbyville’s Terry Kuhn filled that role in the later ones.
Bowling is a big deal in the Gray family. Billy owns Gray’s Pro Shop in Columbus Bowling Center. Jordan is the men’s bowling coach at Marian University in Indianapolis and his fiancee — Jerracah Heibel — is an associate head bowling coach at MU. Billy Gray is a Knights assistant.
Lisa Gray, wife of Billy and mother of Jordan and Peyton, works for Bartholemew County Youth Services Center.
Peyton Gray holds a Criminal Justice degree from Florida Gulf Coast and goes on ride-alongs with police officers during the baseball off-season. He says he sees himself going into some form of law enforcement in the future.
“If you just show up on your high-intensity or game days, you’re not going to get much better,” says Vogt. “Guys are around other guys with high energy and motivation who do not skip drills, warm-ups and recovery.”
During the week, there are also high school players (many of whom are in travel ball tournaments Thursday through Sunday) working out, too. There is weight training, Core Velocity Belt work to emphasis the lower half and the use of PlyoCare Balls.
Each player follows an individualized workout plan based on their Driveline Baseball profile.
“Everyone does a pre-assessment,” says Vogt. “We measure strength, power and velocity and create a plan off that.”
Because of COVID-19 many of the players have not been able to get on an outside diamond in a sanctioned game for months.
Many were not able to do much in the way of throwing or lifting weights for two months.
College players saw their seasons halted in mid-March. High school players heading into college lost their campaigns altogether.
Minor League Baseball has not began its 2020 season nor has the Utica, Mich.- based USPBL .It’s uncertain when or if MiLB will get going. The USPBL has announced it will start with smaller rosters June 24 and expand when fans are allowed at games.
“It’s just a really fun time to come out here and really put all the work that me and all these guys put in throughout the week to a test,” says Polley. “It’s really cool to be able to see the guys come out here and thrive whenever they’ve made adjustments.
“It’s a time to relax and get after each other.”
Donning a T-shirt defining culture as “A wave that inspires a community to achieve greatness” (by Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson), Polley relates to the atmosphere at PRP Baseball and Finch Creek.
“They bust your butt during the week and whenever it’s time to play, it’s time to play,” says Polley. “We don’t worry about the mechanics or the drills we’re working on throughout the week. Let’s see what you got and you make adjustments week to week.”
Polley’s focus was on having a good feel for all his pitches and moving the way they’re supposed to based on Rapsodo-aided design.
Though the timetable is unknown, Polley says being prepared to return to live baseball is the key.
“I view this as an opportunity to improve my craft,” says Polley. “I come off and throw and lift everyday to make myself better.
“Whenever it is time to show up, I’m going to be better than whenever I left.”
Polley came down with the coronavirus in March after coming back from spring training in Arizona and was unable to throw the baseball for two weeks.
For that period, he and his girlfriend stayed away from everyone else and meals were brought to the bedroom door by Polley’s parents.
With facilities shut down, he was able to train in a barn and at local parks.
“To just be a kid again was really cool,” says Polley. “As a kid, you’d go to the park with your friends and practice. You’d compete and try to get better.
“That’s all it has been this entire quarantine. You come back into a facility like (Finch Creek) ready to go.”
Vogt has noticed an attention to detail Polley.
“If the minor league season happens, he’s going to be ready to go,” says Vogt.
“This gives me a chance to compete and feel out my stuff,” says Milto. “I get a chance to improve and see what’s working and what’s not working.
“This time is kind of weird, not knowing when or if we’re going to go back. So I’m just here, seeing the competition and staying ready.”
Milto just began coming to PRP Baseball this past week after hearing about it through friends.
“I really love all that they offer,” says Milto.
While maintaining strength, Milto also makes sure he stays flexible.
“For longevity standards and being able to move well consistently for as long as possible, I think it’s important so I work on by flexibility,” says Milto. “Especially with my upper body. My lower body is naturally flexible.
“I’m working on by thoracic rotations and all that kind of stuff. It’s helped me feel good everyday.”
Milto just began adding a cutter to his pitch assortment.
“Using the cameras and the Rapsodo here is really helping me accelerate the development.
“I’m feeling it out (with the cutter). I’ve already thrown a slider. I’m trying to differentiate those two and make sure they look the same out of my hand but different coming to (the batter).”
Milto says he’s made a switch in his take on how electronic devices can help.
“At first, I didn’t buy much into the technology,” says Milto. “It was all just too much to look at. As of late, I’ve started to pay more attention to it. I’ve realized the benefits of it.
“My mentality has been to just go out there, trust my stuff and compete instead of I need to get my sinker to sink this much with this axis. But I’ve started to understand how important that stuff. You make everyone look the same until it isn’t.
“It’s immediate feedback when you’re training. You release it. You know how you felt. And you know exactly what it did.”
Gray, 25, is a right-hander who played at Columbus (Ind.) East High School, Western Michigan University, Gulf Coast Community College and Florida Gulf Coast University before being signed as a minor league free agent by the Colorado Rockies in 2019. He was released in February 2020 and reports to the Milkmen this weekend.
“I see that they get results here,” says Gray. “It’s always great to push yourself and compete with others that are good at sports.”
Gray, who has been working out with PRP Baseball since prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, counts down his pitching strengths.
“I compete. That’s a big one,” says Gray. “I throw strikes. I’m determined to get better and be the best version of myself.”
When the quarantine began, Gray had no access to a weight room.
“I did a lot of body weight stuff and keep my body there,” says Gray. “I was lifting random stuff. I was squatting with my fiancee on my back. I was finding a way to get it done.
“I knew at some point COVID was going to go away and baseball was going to be back and I needed to be ready.”
Strobel, 25, is a left-hander who played at Avon (Ind.) High School and for the final team at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. (2017) before pitching for the independent Frontier League’s Joliet (Ill.) Slammers that summer. He underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery and missed the 2018 season. He appeared in 2019 with the AA’s Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats. When not pitching, he’s helped coach pitchers at Avon and for the Indiana Bulls 17U White travel team.
Strobel coached at Grand Park early Friday and then scooted over to Finch Creek for PRP “Compete Day.”
“I try to mimic what we do here,” says Strobel of his pitching coach approach. “It’s mainly work hard and be safe.
“Summer ball is now acting like the high school season. It’s been about getting everyone up to speed. Some guys were not throwing over the spring. They just totally shut down. You have other guys who’ve been throwing.”
Strobel has been training with Vogt for about four years.
“I like the routine of everything,” says Strobel. “Everything’s mapped out. You know what you’re doing weeks in advance. That’s how my mind works.”
And then comes the end of the week and the chance to compete.
“Everything’s about Friday live,” says Strobel. “Everyone has a routine getting getting for Friday.”
Strobel has been told he’s on the “first call” when the USPBL expands rosters.
He was “on-ramping” in February when the pandemic came along and he switched to training at the barn before coming back to Finch Creek.
“I really didn’t have to shut down,” says Strobel. “It’s just been a long road from February and still throwing.
“I help out in any way that I can,” says Sullivan, who reached out to Vogt in the spring of 2019, interned last summer and then came on board full-time. “We mesh well together because we believe in a lot of the same sort of fundamentals when it comes to pitching and developing a pitcher.
“It helps to have an extra set of eyes and that’s where I come into play. I dealt with a lot of mechanical issues myself and my cousin help me out. That sparked me to want to do the same for other players.”
Sullivan is pursuing his Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
“Once I have that, it opens up a lot more doors and opportunities for me in the baseball world,” says Sullivan. “Baseball has had a funny route to where it is today. When I grew up a lot of times you threw hard because you were blessed and had the talent.
“Now, it’s been proven that you can make improvements — whether it be in the weight room, overall health or mechanical adjustments in your throwing patterns — and can train velocity.
“A lot of people are trying to find a balance of developing the mechanical side of things while strengthening things in the weight room. They kind of go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other.”
Sullivan says that if the body can’t support the force that’s being generated through it, it’s going to lead to a faster breakdown.
“That’s where the weight room comes into play,” says Sullivan. “Being able to transfer force is kind of the name of the game right now.”
“You’ve got to keep a level head,” says Ryan. “Baseball’s a game of failure and you have to deal with failure.
“It’s about being mentally-prepared and mentally-ready.”
Ryan Thurston played his earliest organized baseball at the youth league in Madison and then travel baseball with the Greenfield-based Indiana Bandits, coached by Jeff Montgomery. In his 16U and 17U summers, he played for the Cincy Flames.
“He pitched in the big leagues (with the 1987 and 1988 Chicago White Sox),” says Thurston of Pawlowski. “He really knew his stuff.
“He taught me a lot about different pitches and when to throw them and being the the best I can be.”
Thurston graduated from Madison Consolidated in 2014 and Western Kentucky in 2017 with a graduate school year at WKU in 2018 (he played for the Hilltoppers in parts of five seasons and earned a financial management degree).
At Madison, he won four baseball letters at Madison, earning all-state honorable mention as a senior. He was all-conference and team MVP three times. He also garnered three letters in basketball.
At Western Kentucky, he pitched in 66 games (52 as a starter — 14 in each of his final three seasons) with 13 wins, 299 strikeouts (second in program history) and 174 walks in 306 2/3 innings (third in WKU annals).
As a senior, the lefty pitched a career-high 80 2/3 innings while allowing a career-low 15 extra-base hits. He finished the season with a 4.24 ERA, although that mark stood at 3.08 prior to his final two starts. He was the only pitcher in Conference USA to secure wins over both Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech.
Thurston signed as a free agent with the Toronto Blue Jays organization and pitched in 13 games (nine in relief) in 2018 before being released.
With the RailCats, a team he joined May 26, Thurston is 2-0 with a 2.58 earned run average. In 35 1/3 innings, he has 33 strikeouts and 16 walks.
Ryan Thurston, a 2013 Madison (Ind.) Consolidated High School graduate who pitched at Western Kentucky University from 2014-18 and holds a financial management degree from that school, is now a relief pitcher for the independent Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats. (Steve Krah Photo)
Getting a pitching staff prepared for an NCAA Division I baseball season takes time.
That’s why Ball State University pitching coach Dustin Glant was more comfortable starting with the Cardinals in the fall and having a full year to help his hurlers develop.
Glant, who had been a volunteer assistant at BSU in 2013, re-joined the staff mid-way through 2016-17 when Chris Fetter (now pitching coach at the University of Michigan) left to take a job with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.
It took Glant some time to gain the trust of his pitchers and to know their strengths and weaknesses.
Even with that late start, Glant saw his arms achieve that first season. They did even more in the second one.
The 2018 Cardinals set a program record for strikeouts (560) and ranked sixth in the national with 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
Two BSU pitchers were taken in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft on Glant’s watch — right-hander/designated hitter Colin Brockhouse (Toronto Blue Jays and did not sign) in 2017 and right-hander Evan Marquardt (Cincinnati Reds) in 2018. Left-hander Kevin Marmon (Minnesota Twins) signed as a free agent in 2017.
Right-hander Drey Jameson was named Mid-American Conference Freshman Pitcher of the Year and was selected to Collegiate Baseball’s Freshman All-America team in 2018. Right-hander John Baker was on that honor squad in 2017 and is on watch lists for his junior year in 2019.
“In my young coaching career, we’re having success developing velocity,” says Glant, 37. “But in a year and a half, we’re not doing a very good job of throwing strikes. We’ve put a lot of our time in the bucket of how do we get better at commanding the ball and being more attack-focused.”
Do you have to sacrifice speed for control?
“I don’t think we should have to,” says Glant. “We structured some things in the fall with our throwing progression. I’m hoping that translates into more strikes during the season.
“There were some adjustments made in how we play catch, how we throw and our focus level on certain things.”
Glant’s hurlers threw often during the eight-week fall development phase.
Ball State head coach Rich Maloney typically gave Glant and his pitchers 90 minutes on the front side of practice to do their work before joining the full team.
“Not everybody has that luxury,” says Glant. “It’s huge that I have that time from him.
“Then it’s just building volume. We throw a lot. I believe in that. We don’t save our bullets. We want to condition the arm to be able to handle a heavy workload during the season.”
As the fall begins and pitchers begin the “on-ramping” process, Glant takes into consideration how much they’ve thrown during the summer and whether they are a returning arm or a newcomer then he allows so many throws at a certain distance and builds upon that.
After the fall, weight and mobility training becomes a priority and pitchers don’t get on the mound as much.
It really depends on the needs of the athlete.
“We’re really individualized,” says Glant. “Their bodies don’t move the same way. There are different deficiencies that you have to attack a different way.
“You have to learn your guys and know how they work. Then you’re able to hone in on who needs to be doing what.”
As Glant gets his 16 pitchers ready to open the season Feb. 15 against Stanford in Tempe, Ariz., he has them throwing between 25 and 35 minutes before they go into their skill work of flat ground or bullpens.
From his high school stops, he knows what it’s like to have players who can perform at another position and be used on the mound. Troy Montgomery (who played in the Detroit Tigers system in 2018) was an outfielder who Glant tried as a pitcher at Mt. Vernon because of his athletic talent. He also did the same with Brady Cherry (who is now an infielder at Ohio State University) while at Lapel. He was one of the best prep pitchers in Indiana.
Even if they do not play another position in college, Glant wants them to have the mindset of an athlete.
“In high school, typically your best players can do everything and you need them to do more things,” says Glant. “You get guys in college and their brains are thinking ‘I’m only a pitcher.’ It feels like they lose some of that natural athleticism when they were in high school playing more than one sport, more than one position and moving around more.
“We want to turn it back. Let’s get back to being an athlete and get more athletic in our moves.”
Glant is also concerned with what’s happening between his pitchers’ ears.
“It’s huge,” says Glant of the mental game. “It’s my biggest weakness as a coach and our biggest weakness as a pitching staff.
“I devoted my entire summer to learning this thing, understanding it better and being able to help my guys better mentally. We did some good things in the fall and kept it going right through this training time. I hope it pays off.”
Glant says it’s important to develop routines inside of the game and slow down breathing and heart rate when things get out of control.
There’s also questions to be asked and answered.
“How is our self talk?,” says Glant. “Are we reviewing our outings? Are we reviewing our bullpens?”
Glant says he wish he knew more about the mental side when he was a player.
Dave and Sharon Glant are parents to three children — Jessica, Dustin and Nate. Jessica Glant is a physician assistant in Maine. Nate Glant is an assistant baseball coach at Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill.
Dave Glant is a third-generation railroad worker.
Dustin looks back on his boyhood and marvels at how hard his father worked and still had something left in the tank to teach him about baseball.
“He worked manual labor,” says Dustin. “He’d come home from these 12-hour shifts and then he’d have the energy to practice with me for a couple hours.”
Dave Glant showed Dustin about being hard-nosed and disciplined and about body language.
“Your opponent should never know how you’re feeling and how things are going,” says Dustin. “My preference is to be stone-faced and the emotion is positive emotion for your team.
Don’t stare a hole through the shortstop when he makes an error behind you.
“We try to get guys to embrace those situations,” says Glant. “What more fun can than picking up your shortstop? He’s excited because you got him off the hook. You’re excited because you got out of the inning with the team.
“That just builds momentum with you to the dugout.”
His father broke down VHS videos for a 12-year-old Dustin to review and use to improve.
“He was way before his time,” says Dustin. “And he was never a college player. He was a dad that really had a passion for helping me get better.”
“To me, he is a legend and like a second father figure,” says Glant of Fireoved. “He picked right up where dad left off with accountability, discipline, work ethic, how to be a good teammate and how to train.”
That intensity continued at Purdue University. The 6-foot-2 right-hander pitched for three seasons for the Boilermakers (2001-03) for head coach Doug Schreiber and assistant coaches Todd Murphy and Rob Smith (now head coach at Ohio University) and was selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the seventh round of the 2003 MLB Draft. He competed six seasons in the Diamondbacks organization (2003-08), reaching Triple-A in his last season.
With Maloney, Glant is seeing a different side of coaching.
“I’ve never seen that side of it,” says Glant. “I’m learning how to love your players and how to build relationships.
“You’ve got to be a transformational coach and not a transactional coach. That’s what I’m learning from Rich Maloney.”
Dustin and Ashley Glant have a daughter — Evelyn (16 months). The baby is named for a grandmother on the mother’s side.
Dustin Glant, a Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wayne High School graduate who pitched at Purdue University and in the pro baseball, became the Ball State University pitching coach prior to the 2017 season. (Ball State University Photo)
“It is not a developmental league, but it is an opportunity league — an opportunity for everyone from the radio broadcasters looking to break into professional baseball to groundkeepers to general managers and managers,” says 13th-year Gary manager Greg Tagert. “And, most importantly, it’s an opportunity for players who may have never gotten the opportunity to continue their careers or extend their careers.
“What it’s done for the industry cannot be underrated.”
But the emphasis is on the pennant race (Gary went into play Monday, Aug. 7, at 40-33 and seven games behind first-place Lincoln in the AA Central Division; the RailCats were two games out of the wild card lead in a 100-game season) and not getting a player ready for the next level.
“We make no apology to the players,” says Tagert. “We tell them from the beginning, we are all about winning.
“When a player steps through the door, it’s not about: Is he going to get his at-bats? Is he going to bat third? Is he going to pitch the sixth inning every night?
“Sometimes the players find that out the hard way. They’re used to a different type of format. They are surprised at the level of competition and the emphasis put on winning … It’s not for every player, just like it’s not for every manager.”
A manager in independent baseball since 1995, Tagert enjoys the challenge of having the ability and the responsibility of building a team.
Unlike affiliated ball where players and coaching staff are assigned to a franchise and are told how to develop the talent with hopes of one day seeing them in the big leagues, Tagert makes all on-field personnel decisions.
“Player procurement and all the player decisions sit at this desk,” says Tagert. “That’s something I would not give up.
“It is the lure of the job for many of us (independent baseball managers) … The challenge is great. But it’s like anything else in life. If it was that easy, it wouldn’t be any fun.”
League rules limit rosters to 23. An additional one player may be on the disabled list during the regular season. Of those 23 players, a maximum of five may be veterans and minimum of five must be rookies. The remaining players will be designated limited service players and of those LS players only six (6) may be LS-4.
Tagert says the classifications create a unique kind of parity in the league and also creates opportunity.
The American Association is full of players with MLB experience and others who played at the Triple-A or Double-A level.
Right-handed pitcher Jorge DeLeon, a reliever for Gary, played for the Houston Astros in 2013 and 2014.
MLB scouts regularly cover the independent leagues.
Allensworth, who played at Madison Heights High School and Purdue University, was a first round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1993 and played in the big leagues with Pittsburgh, the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets. He was with the RailCats in 2006 and 2007.
Haynes was a first round pick of the Oakland Athletics in 1997. He played in Gary in 2006 and then with the Los Angeles Angels in 2007 and Tampa Bay Rays in 2008.
Byrdak made his MLB debut with Kansas City in 1998. He played in Gary in 2003 and became the first former RailCats player to play in the big leagues with the 2005 Baltimore Orioles.
Wes Chamberlain, who played six MLB seasons including in the 1993 World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies, was a RailCat in 2003.
Texas Rangers hitting coach Anthony Iapoce was a former RailCats outfielder (2004-05).
The team has retired No. 23 for right-handed pitcher Willie Glen (2005-07, 2010) and No. 45 for Gary native and coach Joe Gates. Glen played at Plainfield High School and the University of Evansville. Gates played at Gary Roosevelt High School and briefly with the Chicago White Sox.
The RailCats were part of former Northern League and began as a road team in 2002 while 6,139-seat U.S. Steel Yard was being constructed along U.S. 20, South Shore rail lines and I-90 (Indiana Toll Road) and very close to the steel mills.
The first RailCats game at U.S. Steel Yard was May 26, 2003.