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May 31—DENVER — Austin Gomber spent his first offseason as a professional baseball player with a ball in his hands at all times.

He was teaching himself a spiked curveball, and he had to adjust to the way his thumb, index finger and middle finger were positioned on the seams. It was 2014, and Gomber had just finished his first season of minor league ball.

To make it to the big leagues, especially as a pitcher who doesn’t throw with high velocity, he knew he needed a breaking ball.

The grip felt weird at the time, but now its second nature to him. Gomber, in his first season with the Rockies, is a consistent starter for the first time in his career. That gives him a chance to not only show off his signature curveball but also to gain momentum from each outing.

His career with the Rockies will always be marked by the trade that sent Nolan Arenado to St. Louis, and Gomber knows his name will forever be connected to the departed star. But, even with the weight of one of the most controversial trades in franchise history on his shoulders, Gomber hasn’t let the pressure get to him. He’s made improvements in each start, and finished May with a 3.15 ERA for the month.

‘That’s a special night’

When Gomber was drafted out of Florida Atlantic University in 2014, he only threw a fastball and a changeup. Not unusual for a young ballplayer, but it was not enough to make him stand out in a competitive Cardinals farm system.

He rose through the ranks and made his MLB debut in 2018 out of the bullpen. Velocity has never been a big factor for him, he’s a soft contact pitcher with a goal of getting more strikeouts. He rarely threw above 90 MPH in the minor leagues, but a spark was lit when he hit the majors. His fastball average increased to 92 MPH when he made his debut, and has stayed there since.

“You come to the big leagues with all the adrenaline and the third deck and you go to the bullpen and you only have to throw one inning,” he said. “You break through a threshold you didn’t necessarily know you could get to.”

Gomber’s time in the major leagues didn’t last long in 2018 though — he was optioned to Triple-A when he wasn’t having success against left-handed batters. In Memphis, he learned how to throw a hard slider, closer to a cutter. He redeveloped it as a straight slider in 2019, as he rehabbed from injuries.

He went to spring training in 2020 ready to show off his new pitch, but COVID-19 quickly changed things. He headed home, where in between hanging out with his toddler Beckham and guest starring in TikToks with his wife, Gomber set out to redefine yet another pitch.

This time it was a changeup — a pitch he used in college but stopped throwing when he was in the minor leagues. When he was younger, he threw it with his index finger and ring finger. But he lost feel for that grip, and used the downtime to find one that works. He settled on using his ring finger and pinky.

“A changeup is such a feel pitch,” he said. “We’ll see how long this one lasts, we’ll probably end up going to a different one.”

On May 24, Gomber pitched the best start of his career using a well-balanced four-pitch mix. He pitched eight innings, striking out eight, both career-highs. Six of those strikeouts came off his slider, with his changeup getting him his last two.

“That’s a tough pitcher that he is,” pitching coach Steve Foster said. “When he has all four working, that’s a special night.”

Fitting right in

The only player Gomber knew when he arrived at spring training in February was Brendan Rodgers, who grew up near him in Florida. While the rest of the rotation — {span}Germán Márquez, Antonio Senzatela, Jon Gray and Kyle Freeland — {/span} has been together for the past five seasons, Gomber was the new kid on the block.

The group welcomed him, and he buddied up with Freeland, the only other left-handed starter. Both have the same fierce mentality, Foster said, and are very competitive. Unlike some players, Gomber didn’t have difficulty adjusting to the altitude in Denver, but he wasn’t a fan of the cold.

In St. Louis, Gomber didn’t need to call his own pitches, veteran catcher Yadier Molina took care of that. Gomber said he thinks that stunted his growth. He didn’t know why he was throwing a certain pitch in situations, he just did what Molina told him.

With the Rockies, he’s taken ownership of his own game. He’s studying hitters and watching film. He’s tracking which sequences work best for him, and which pitch he needs to throw to get himself back into a count. He’s learning to read swings, and relying on feel and reactions.

“I’m still learning,” he said. “I go back and watch videos of at-bats from the year and I’m like why would I throw that pitch there?”

In the Cardinals organization, Gomber said there was a lot of competition between pitchers, and that he was always looking over his shoulder. Now, he’s embracing the opportunity to focus just on pitching.

“I’m trying to do my best to win games and compete every fifth day, but at the same time I’m learning every time out,” he said. “Whether it goes good or goes bad, how to build off of it and get better the next time out.”