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Sonny Gray will take the mound Monday night in just the 13th start of his major league career.
That seems misleading considering the resume he’s built. The right-hander from Tennessee already has two postseason starts under his belt. Even before injuries hit the Oakland A’s pitching staff, Gray was penciled in toward the top of the rotation despite the fact he’s entering just his first full major league season.
He’s experienced beyond his years, and that’s one reason the baby-faced 24-year-old won’t be in awe when he takes the ball before a sold-out Opening Night crowd Monday to face the Cleveland Indians at the Coliseum.
“He’s not afraid to pitch in games like that,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “You can tell a guy that really just loves to pitch. There are certain guys, on their pitch day, they look like they’re miserable. And he’s not.”
Gray keeps his preparation simple. He doesn’t log long hours in the video room studying opposing hitters or himself, looking for mechanical flaws to fix. Asked if there’s any veteran pitchers around the game he studies to try to emulate, he doesn’t have a name to offer.
“I’ve never tried to imitate another player,” Gray said. “I’m not big on watching video in general. I don’t know, a lot of people can’t feel something. I can feel myself if I’m landing open. I’m more apt to feel my body and learn that way rather than seeing it on video.”
Melvin points out Gray’s pedigree as a big-game pitcher. At Vanderbilt University, Gray typically was the Friday night starter, pitching the opening game of a Southeastern Conference weekend series and looking to set the tone for the Commodores.
Going further back in time, Gray shined in big games on the gridiron too. He quarterbacked Smyrna High School to back-to-back Tennessee Class 5A state championships.
“You can tell by the look in his eye that he believes in himself. I think that’s what it boils down to,” A’s shortstop Jed Lowrie said.
Melvin downplays Gray’s role as Oakland’s ace, saying that after Opening Night he’s just one of a group of starters taking the mound every fifth day. But with Jarrod Parker out all season after undergoing his second Tommy John surgery, and A.J. Griffin sidelined several weeks with elbow tendinitis, Gray undoubtedly is viewed as the A’s No. 1 starter, and he needs to pitch like one.
He joins Scott Kazmir, Jesse Chavez, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone to form what appears to be a capable starting rotation, but it’s Gray who is best equipped to shut down an opposing lineup on any given night.
Whether the A’s affix the “ace” label to him or not, it’s a role Gray embraces.
“That’s something that I enjoy, something I like,” he said. “I think that’s what makes pitchers good. And just competing within the team. Me and Kaz competing against each other, and him competing with Dan and Jesse and Tommy. That open competition between the team is what makes teams good.”
Kazmir was a can’t-miss prospect when he broke in with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2004, and he knows about being a young pitcher and taking on big responsibility for a major league staff. The first-year Athletic likes the early impression Gray has made on him.
“I’ve seen a lot of poise from him,” Kazmir said. “For as young as he is, and as early as it is in his career, he’s someone that gets it at a young age.”