MILWAUKEE (AP) — Junior Guerra pitched in Mexico and Italy before finding success with the Milwaukee Brewers. Jon Gray arrived in Colorado just a couple years after being taken with the third overall pick in the 2013 amateur draft by the Rockies.
Two right-handers who took disparate roads to the majors will share a distinction Monday as opening-day starters when the Rockies visit the Brewers at Miller Park.
Gray figured to start a season opener at some point. The honor arrived in his second full season in the majors.
Gray went 10-10 with a 4.61 ERA in 29 starts with 185 strikeouts in 168 innings last year. The hard-throwing right-hander has a fastball clocked in the mid-to-upper 90s and a slider the high-80s.
“It’s really exciting, it’s the first game of the season,” Gray said last week. “But then again, it’s another game. I’m just looking to get hitters out.”
Guerra emerged last season to become Milwaukee’s most reliable starter, going 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA in 20 starts after being called up on May 1. With the Brewers lacking a true ace, Guerra earned the opening day start from manager Craig Counsell.
Not bad for a 32-year-old former journeyman who was the first player acquired in the tenure of general manager David Stearns. Guerra was claimed off waivers from the Chicago White Sox on Oct. 7, 2015.
“I just think it’s perfect timing,” Guerra said through an interpreter. “Just thankful that I kept working hard … and also being a lot more mature helped me a lot, too.”
Guerra might have been referring to his 50-game suspension by Major League Baseball in 2009 for violating the minor league drug policy. After Guerra was released by the New York Mets organization, he went on to pitch in an independent league and the Mexican League. He also pitched in Italy in 2014 before catching on with the White Sox organization last in 2015, when he pitched three games in relief in the big leagues.
“The suspension closed a lot of doors for me and a lot of teams weren’t willing to give me the opportunity,” Guerra said. “Thankfully the White Sox took a chance on me and gave me the opportunity.”
Brewers catcher Manny Pina is familiar with Guerra because they’re both from Venezuela, though Pina didn’t start catching Guerra until they were both in the Brewers organization last season.
Guerra gained command of his fastball and gained confidence from pitching both in the Independent League and leagues outside the country, Pina said. But watch out for Guerra’s splitter.
“He controls the fastball, his breaking ball — but the split, that’s his strike,” Pina said. “That’s the out pitch. When he throws the pitch, it’s phenomenal to catch.”