OAKLAND – The manager’s handshake typically is the sign of a job well done for a starting pitcher.
For A’s ace Sonny Gray, a handshake from Bob Melvin was something to avoid after the fifth inning Saturday. His pitch count already at 100, Gray badly wanted to take the mound again for the sixth.
“To me, if I don't look at him he might not take me out,” Gray said afterward. “I was waiting for the handshake, and in the back of my mind I was like, 'Maybe he's going to give me the handshake, but if I just take a hard right turn and don't put my hand out, maybe he'll let me go back out there.’"
Gray got his wish and turned in his best inning of the afternoon before handing things over to his bullpen in a 5-3 A’s victory over the Kansas City Royals. Gray struck out his final two batters of the sixth, capping a 114-pitch outing that was no masterpiece but oh-so-important for Oakland’s pitching staff.
The A’s bullpen has been absorbing too many innings so far this season due to the starters not getting deep enough in games. The problem Saturday was that the Royals put together some tough two-out at-bats, making Gray work harder and longer. It didn’t help that there were several ground balls hit to the right side that weren’t converted into outs.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Early offense, Gray guide A's past Royals]
It was important for Gray to gut his way through six and get a lead to the late-inning trio of John Axford, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson, who gave up a run in the ninth but notched his third save.
“We needed him to get through that inning,” Melvin said of Gray. “It was a frustrating game for him … You really have to put that aside and be mentally tough to go out there and pitch the way he did.”
The A’s supported Gray with early offense thanks to Josh Reddick’s three-run homer in the first, and they stopped a four-game losing skid. Sunday afternoon’s rubber match sure seems like a ‘swing’ game for the A’s momentum-wise. A win only salvages a 2-4 homestand, but taking two of three from the defending World Series champs would be a nice way to head out on a 10-game road trip that begins Tuesday against the Yankees.
Though there’s still work to accomplish, Melvin placed heavy value on Saturday’s victory.
“It was (a big win),” Melvin said, “especially with our ace on the mound. You never want to say this early in the season that anything is a must-win, but it was a big win for us. We needed to get it to get some confidence back here.”
The fact that Doolittle had a positive day, after allowing homers in each of his two previous outings, had to be good for his confidence. Called upon in relief of Axford with a runner aboard and the A’s leading 5-2 in the eighth, he retired the left-handed hitting Alex Gordon on a fly to right to end that inning.
“It was great to see Doo back out there and get the job done,” Reddick said.
Melvin left things open-ended after the game when asked if he considers Madson his regular closer right now over Doolittle. Doolittle has been used more for matchup-type situations in this series, but Melvin said before the game he thinks the lefty is throwing well despite the homers.
It was a spotty afternoon for the A’s defense, in particular second baseman Jed Lowrie. He was charged with two errors and had a couple other balls hit his way that he couldn’t make the play on. Plays like that contributed to the frustrations for Gray that Melvin referenced, though asked specifically about some of the plays Lowrie was involved in, Melvin added:
“Those were just extended out of his reach.”
Gray’s 114 pitches were the third-most of his career. But he navigated through a tough Royals lineup to give up just one earned run over six innings, managing to play keep-away from his manager in the process.
“I was glad that they gave me the opportunity to go back out there for the sixth,” Gray said. “When you play these guys you're going to be in for a fight. That's what it was today.”