It was Game 2 of last year’s American League Division Series, and it seems the only person inside the Oakland Coliseum who wasn’t caught up in the hysteria of the evening was the man most responsible for it.
Sonny Gray sparked the A’s to a 1-0 victory that night with eight shutout innings against the Detroit Tigers. Even as the home crowd grew louder, encouraging the rookie with chants of “Son-ny! Son-ny!”, Gray didn’t let the emotion get to him.
Nor was he consumed by the pitcher’s duel he had going with Tigers star Justin Verlander.
“I couldn’t have told you one pitch he threw that game,” Gray said.
That trait, the ability to not let a big moment overwhelm him, should serve the right-hander well as he embarks on his first full major league season. Gray is being looked upon to help anchor an Oakland rotation that holds a big key to whether the A’s three-peat as American League West champs.
The bar is set high for Gray, 24, based on his impressive rookie season. He debuted out of the bullpen in July and went 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA over 12 appearances (10 starts), averaging 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
Then he dazzled in Game 2 of the ALDS. Gray was the choice to start the deciding Game 5 over 18-game winner Bartolo Colon, and though he wasn’t particularly sharp – allowing three runs and four walks over five innings – his teammates shouldered considerable blame by mustering just three hits against Verlander in a 3-0 loss.
The easy assumption is that Gray will simply pick up where he left off last season and mow through opposing lineups from April thru September. That’s easier said than done.
Maintaining consistency over the grind of a six-month season will be the biggest task, according to those throughout the A’s organization.
“I don’t worry about him as much mentally,” Oakland general manager Billy Beane said. “I think he’ll understand the pace he needs to take to be a starter in the major leagues. To me, (the challenge is) as much physical as it is mental.”
Veteran shortstop Jed Lowrie echoed those thoughts.
“He came up the last couple of months, but it wasn’t a full season in the big leagues,” Lowrie said. “I think that’s the most important thing to a young guy his first couple of years is learning how to pace yourself. When to push harder, when to pull back a little bit, and how to play a full season at the major league level.”
Lowrie said Gray reminds him of a young Roy Oswalt, with his riding fastball and hard 12-to-6 curve. Many of Gray’s teammates refer to his “bulldog mentality” once he’s on the mound, which is an interesting contrast to his personality off the field. Gray is low-key and approachable, known as a bit of a goofball in the A’s clubhouse.
He starred for three seasons at Vanderbilt University, where head coach Tim Corbin learned there were two sides to the right-hander.
“He’s just fun to be around and he keeps things light, until he’s got the ball in his hand,” Corbin said in a phone interview. “That’s the only time I wouldn’t go near him. When he’s in that competition mode, you let him be.”
Gray grew up in Smyrna, Tenn., just a 30-minute drive from Vanderbilt. While recruiting Gray, Corbin would take his wife and make the short drive on Friday nights to watch Gray play quarterback for Smyrna High. Gray guided the Bulldogs to back-to-back Class 5A football state championships.
Corbin got an idea of the type of player he’d be inheriting.
“His instinctual abilities, his communication skills with receivers and linemen, his ability to improvise. All of those things I thought would extend to pitching, and they did,” Corbin said. “His ability to get out of the clutch of a defender and get off a pass was similar to him being able to pitch out of runner-in-scoring-position situations. It seemed like he would ratchet it up when he needed to.”
Gray’s intensity and concentration were on display in Game 2 against Detroit. Now his challenge will be delivering for the A’s every fifth day for an entire season.
His first two spring starts have been rocky – the Diamondbacks roughed him up for four runs and five hits in just one inning Thursday. Gray makes his third start Tuesday against the Padres, as he tries to hone a changeup that will complement his fastball and curve.
Perhaps trying to infuse some urgency in his Cactus League outings, Gray said he’s taking nothing for granted.
“Honestly, there’s no guarantees,” he insisted. “I’m coming in trying to make the team, impress the coaches, but also get better at what I need to get better at.”