The A’s knew what kind of stuff right-hander Sonny Gray possessed.
On Saturday they discovered he’s also got a flair for the dramatic.
The rookie dazzled a sellout crowd at the Coliseum on Saturday, blanking the Tampa Bay Rays over 6 2/3 innings in a 2-1 A’s victory. He struck out seven and walked one, a strong statement that he belongs in the rotation during the pressure-packed final weeks of the regular season as the A’s try to lock down a playoff spot.
Oakland has won the first two of this three-game series, and they moved 1 ½ games ahead of Tampa Bay for the top wild card spot. Just as importantly, they’re now 2-3 in the season series against the Rays with just one game left. If they lose Sunday, Tampa Bay wins the head-to-head tiebreaker, meaning if the teams finish the season tied for the wild card, the Rays would host the one-game playoff to advance. Should they tie 3-3 in the season series, the team with the best record within its division advances.
Coco Crisp drove in both runs for the A’s, scoring Stephen Vogt with a single in the sixth and hitting a towering homer to right in the eighth.
Starting pitching report
Gray (2-2) electrified the home crowd early by striking out five of the first six batters he faced. He painted the outside corner to get Evan Longoria looking in the second. Then he snapped off sharp curve balls to get Matt Joyce looking and Wil Myers swinging. All the while he pumped in a fastball that registered 92-93 mph on the stadium radar gun.
The right-hander has allowed just two earned runs in 21 2/3 innings at the Coliseum. Making his start all the more impressive was the outing that Gray was coming off of. He gave up six runs on eight hits at Baltimore last Sunday, his rockiest day yet as a major leaguer. There was no carry-over, and Gray lowered his ERA to 2.57 through seven big league appearances, five starts.
It was a white-knuckle ninth for A’s fans, as Grant Balfour allowed two hits and a run in the ninth to shave Oakland’s lead to 2-1. But with the tying run on second, he coaxed a groundout to first from Kelly Johnson to register his 35th save. Dan Otero entered in the eighth and struck out Evan Longoria to strand a runner at second.
At the plate
Rays right-hander Alex Cobb (8-3) was up to the task of a pitcher’s duel. He went the distance and allowed two runs on five hits. The A’s finally snapped a scoreless tie in the sixth. Vogt tripled high off the right field wall, then Coco Crisp punched a single up the middle through a drawn-in infield to make it 1-0. Oakland squandered a good opportunity in the first. Coco Crisp led off with a single and Josh Donaldson walked, but they remained at first and second as Jed Lowrie and Brandon Moss struck out and Yoenis Cespedes grounded into a fielder’s choice. Seth Smith got doubled off first on Eric Sogard’s deep drive in the fifth that was hauled in by Tampa Bay center fielder Desmond Jennings. Crisp stole second base in that first inning, snapping a string of 25 straight games that he hadn’t swiped a bag. He has just four steals in his last 61 games. Was Saturday’s steal an indicator of things to come? Bob Melvin would welcome a spark from the running game.
In the field
Gray flashed some nifty glove work in the sixth, bare-handing Evan Longoria’s tapper and throwing off-balance to first for the out.
Jose Lobaton was credited with a double in the fifth on a ball that went right through A’s first baseman Daric Barton. It did no damage, as Lobaton was stranded at third. Jed Lowrie turned a nice double play in the top of the seventh, fielding a ball up the middle and stepping on the bag himself before throwing to first. It was a clean game overall defensively, as both starters pitched well and kept their teammates engaged behind them. Kurt Suzuki replaced Stephen Vogt behind the plate to protect a two-run lead in the ninth for Oakland.
A sellout crowd of 35,067 was on hand for Green Day Fireworks Night, with members of the Bay Area band in attendance to throw out the first pitch.
A.J. Griffin (11-9, 3.94) takes the ball in the 1:05 p.m. finale of this three-game series. It’s all about keeping the ball in the yard for Griffin, who leads the majors in homers allowed (32). Rays manager Joe Maddon had yet to announce his starter as of Saturday night.