SEATTLE – For as much that went right for Sonny Gray on Saturday night, he was still a bit steamed over the things that went wrong.
He again had to navigate through rough waters in the first inning. He put too many runners on base throughout the game.
It’s all nit-picking at this point, given the results.
Gray had a firm grasp on the situation in the A’s 3-1 victory over the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field. And when trouble was on the horizon, that’s when he was at his stingiest best. Four of his career high-tying nine strikeouts came with a man in scoring position, as the Mariners went 0 for 10 in that situation.
“He made big outs when he had to,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “His curve ball was good. He threw enough changeups. He’s pitching well when you look at the numbers, but I still don’t think we’ve seen his best game.”
Until that best game comes along, the stats are fun to admire. In three starts, Gray (2-0) has allowed just two earned runs over 19 innings for a 0.95 ERA that’s good for seventh among American League starters. He’s struck out 19 and walked seven.
But Gray, still in the early stages of his first full big league season, shared Melvin’s thoughts about the room he sees for improvement. All four runs that he’s allowed have come in the first three innings of a game.
“I gotta prepare better for the early innings,” Gray, 24, said. “I gotta be able to get into that rhythm early on, and we’ll work on it and get better at it.”
He allowed singles to his first two batters of the game, and Robinson Cano’s RBI groundout provided the Mariners their only run. From the second through the seventh, Gray allowed just three hits.
Most impressive was the different manner that he put away hitters. Gray said he felt extra life on his fastball, and he was routinely hitting 95 and 96 mph on the radar gun. In the later innings, he began utilizing his off-speed stuff more. Trailing by two, the Mariners had runners on the corners in the seventh when Gray snapped off a curve and got Abraham Almonte swinging to end the threat.
“He kind of reminds me of Roy Oswalt,” Mariners designated hitter Logan Morrison said. “He has a little sneaky heater that goes both ways. A good curveball. He’s really good at throwing backdoor off-speed pitches to lefties. When you’re getting ready for 96, and he throws a backdoor curveball at 81, it’s tough.”
A’s shortstop Jed Lowrie made the same Oswalt comparison with Gray during spring training. But there’s no doubt Gray is carving his own identity. Through three starts, he’s showing signs of being the young ace that his potential suggests he can be.
“He’s a kid who has a good grip on how to be a pitcher, not just a thrower,” said A’s reliever Luke Gregerson, who got the save Saturday. “I saw 96 (mph) up there a few times. But he knows how to pitch, he knows how to attack hitters. He knows how to set them up.”
And he knows how to execute a game plan. Having faced Seattle just six days ago in Oakland, Gray said he altered the strategy and went with more of a fastball/curve ball approach, showing Mariners hitters more movement.
How did that approach differ from his previous start? Gray smiled and hesitated with how to respond, clearly not wanting to give up any secrets.
It was a veteran move, even from a young guy who insists there’s still plenty to learn.