Rewind: Early innings are no breeze for Gray

Rewind: Early innings are no breeze for Gray
June 14, 2014, 12:00 am
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We’ve come to expect so much from him. He only gave up three runs in six innings. He didn’t have his best stuff, but he battled out there. We just didn’t do anything offensively.
Brandon Moss on Sonny Gray

OAKLAND -– It was another one of those head-scratching starts for Sonny Gray on Friday.

Check the box score, and the numbers indicate it wasn’t such a bad night for the A’s right-hander. He went six innings and gave up three runs in Oakland’s 7-0 blanking by the New York Yankees.

And while the final stat line is what matters most, the process also counts for something. And Friday’s road to completing those six innings was a difficult one for Gray to navigate. He gave up hits to the first three batters he faced in a two-run first inning, then allowed three more hits (along with a walk to the No. 9 hitter) in the second as New York tacked on another run to put the A’s in a 3-0 hole.

[INSTANT REPLAY: A's bats silenced, shut out by Yankees 7-0]

After that, it was clear sailing, as Gray retired 13 of his final 14 hitters. Six of those came via strikeout.

“They put the ball in play early, and I left a few balls up and they took advantage of it,” Gray said. “Once we were able to start making pitches down in the zone (we) got them out. It was just a little too late.”

If there’s been one problem area for Gray in what’s been a very fine overall season, it’s been his stumbles out of the starting gate. Half of the 32 runs he’s allowed this season have come in innings 1-3. He’s issued 10 walks in the first inning, more than double the number of free passes he’s given in any other inning.

Oftentimes he’s overcome those sluggish starts and turned in a very strong outing. But the A’s surely would like him to make things a little easier on himself.

“That’s probably been his problem the last few times has been the (rough) starts,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said, “whether it’s ball/strike ratio or giving up some hits like he did tonight. The good news is he settled in pretty well. This was probably his most difficult start as far as giving up hits early on, but he was able to give us six innings. … That was good to see.”

You certainly couldn’t have watched the A’s on Friday, in their most one-sided loss of the season, and pointed to Gray as the culprit. Oakland mustered just two hits and never advanced a runner past second base. They’ve got several players going through dry spells at the same time, with Josh Donaldson’s 0-for-27 slump certainly the most concerning.

Brandon Moss, another struggling guy in the middle of the order, pointed out that Gray didn’t get much help from his hitters. It was 3-0 when Gray departed. The Yankees broke it open with four runs off Jeff Francis in the eighth.

“I know a few of us have had little bit of a stretch where we’re taking some swings we don’t normally take,” Moss said. “We just gotta fight through those (bad) times and try to find a way to be productive at least.”

The thing is, you get the feeling that the A’s won’t stay this cold as an offensive group for long.

But in Gray, the A’s have a gifted 24-year-old who, it’s easy to forget, is still in his first full big league season. He’s by no means a finished product. Naturally, the A’s would like to see their young right-hander learn to make things easier on himself. Gray’s pitch count cracked 100 by the sixth, necessitating a call to the bullpen for the seventh.

He referred to work he’s doing between starts with pitching coach Curt Young, but declined to discuss it in detail. He did offer that the focus is “not trying to make my stuff really, really nasty. Just make pitches.”

It’s tough to say a pitcher is struggling when he’s 6-3 with a 2.93 ERA. But that’s the catch when you pitch as brilliantly as Gray has at times this season. A high standard is set.

“We’ve come to expect so much from him,” Moss said. “He only gave up three runs in six innings. He didn’t have his best stuff, but he battled out there. … We just didn’t do anything offensively.”