University of Central Arkansas right-hander Tyler Gray was picked in the Major League Baseball Draft for the second consecutive year on Tuesday, this time in the seventh round by the Kansas City Royals.
Gray, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound pitcher from Fort Smith Southside High School, jumped 374 spots from No. 586 by the Minnesota Twins after his junior season to No. 212 by the Royals on Tuesday after being named the Southland Conference Pitcher of the Year as a senior.
"It's been a long journey coming," Gray said. “So, I was happy for it, and I was really happy to go with that organization. That was who I thought was going to take me. But recently, the last few days, a bunch of other teams starting talking to me, as well.
"I had actually just gotten off the phone with the Royals scout who had been talking to me, and he said they were going to take me in the seventh round. I told him I was good with that, let's do it. And then, the Marlins called me as soon as I got off the phone. But, I wanted to be a man of my word to the organization that I felt had put more time and interest into me than any other one, and that was the Royals."
Gray turned in a record-setting senior season, breaking both the school single-game strikeout record with 15 against Abilene Christian University and the career record of 269 that was held by Matt Whitaker. Gray finished with 284 strikeouts, including 116 of those this past season, which ranked second in the SLC. Batters hit just .217 against him in his team-high 97.2 innings pitched.
Gray, who had a 6-2 record and a 3.32 earned-run average, is UCA's first player to earn SLC Pitcher of the Year honors.
For his career, he finished with a 19-10 record with a 3.38 ERA, tossing 268.2 innings in 33 starts on the mound for the Bears. He has six complete games and two shutouts.
Gray is UCA's eighth MLB draftee in the past eight seasons, and his seventh-round selection is the highest for a Bear in the NCAA Division I era.
"Just his leadership and showing up every single day,” UCA coach Allen Gum said about what Gray brought to the Bears. "He always had team first. I go back to the (Texas A&M) Corpus Christi game, one of the worst games of his career. There are a lot of places that protect a guy's ERA and get them out quick when they are having one of those days. Had a rough first inning, threw something like 45 pitches, the wheel fell off and the spare went with it.
"I told Tyler, 'Hey, for us to win this series, we need to get six innings out of you.' And it was 'No problem.' He went out there and gutted it out. I've always known he was a special guy from the first day he came on campus. But for a senior to do that... and that could have hurt him as far as Pitcher of the Year and those things, because it jumped his ERA quite a bit.
"You know, we look at the 15 strikeouts in that one game at Abilene Christian, and a lot of the easy wins we had when he was on the mound. For me, it goes back to when he was at his worst and going through some adversity like the Corpus Christi game, and he was still just an unbelievable teammate. That's what Tyler Gray meant to our team.
"Even at his worst, he was still the best as far as a teammate goes. We're going to miss that, no question about it.”
Gray chose to return to UCA for his senior season after striking out 89 batters in 87.2 innings, winning six games and helping the Bears to a runner-up spot at the SLC Tournament as a junior in 2017.
"Just coming back meant a lot to me, because I came back for family reasons,” Gray said. "After the way we went out last year, and then getting to come back and enjoy my senior season. If I could go back and make the same decision, I'd do it every time.
"It was a good year. Knowing me, I always think I should do better. Didn't go out the way I wanted to, but we still had a good year and a great team. I would do anything for all 35 of those men on that roster.
"They (the coaches) helped me out a lot, just developing who I am today. It made me feel like I was home for all four years.”
Gray said he will sign his paperwork and find out his minor league destination in the next day or two.
The Royals have minor league affiliates in Idaha Falls, Idaho, Burlington, N.C., and Surprise, Ariz. (all Rookie League), along with the Lexington (Kentucky) Legends (A), Wilmington (Delaware) Blue Rocks (Advanced A), the Northwest Arkansas Naturals in Springdale (AA) and the Omaha (Nebraska) Storm Chasers (AAA).
“After last year, he just came back and went back to work, tried to improve his game and he did,” Gum said. "He showed up every day and went to work. Extremely coachable. There were a lot of teams wanting him, and I'm excited that the Royals got him. Heck, we'll probably see him up in Northwest Arkansas pretty soon.”