ANAHEIM -- In a game that featured no shortage of offensive stars for the A’s, manager Bob Melvin pointed to the work of his young pitching ace as a key to Wednesday’s victory.
Sonny Gray had put Angels on every base in the bottom of the third, with the score tied, before dispatching the heart of their lineup to escape the jam. It wasn’t until four innings later that his teammates broke the game open, but Gray’s nimble work with the bases loaded kept things from potentially getting out of hand in the home team’s favor.
The right-hander gave up just two hits over seven innings, continuing a terrific start to his season in the A’s 9-2 victory at Angel Stadium.
[RECAP: A's return favor, beat Angels 9-2]
“That’s the key to the game right there, getting out of that -- at the time,” Melvin said. “And that’s what he does. That’s where the competitiveness shows up and he kicks in another gear.”
For that work, the Michigan football helmet that the team awards to the player of the game in victories sat in Gray’s locker after this one.
He wasn’t in his best form Wednesday. The stuff wasn’t quite as electric as normal, and Gray was dealing with a headache in the late innings that had Melvin pondering when to take him out. But he came through like the No. 1 starter he’s evolved into, particularly after walking consecutive batters to load the bases in the third.
Gray got Albert Pujols to wave at a slider that bounced for a strikeout, then got David Freese to pop up a fastball to keep it a 1-1 game at the time.
“That was Sonny in a nutshell,” catcher Stephen Vogt said. “He gets into trouble a little bit, and then he just got better. For him to be able to make pitches he did in that moment, that’s why he is who he is.”
With their five-run seventh, which featured five consecutive two-out hits, the A’s turned what was a pitcher’s duel early on between Gray and Jered Weaver into a rout. They were 2-for-10 with runners in scoring position through the first six innings, and then, the switch flipped.
Credit Vogt with the breakthrough on his two-out RBI single that brought home the go-ahead run off lefty reliever Cesar Ramos. That opened the floodgates. Billy Butler followed with a mammoth two-run homer to dead center off Vinnie Pestano, and the A’s were on their way.
“As you’ve seen before, this team’s got some big innings in them,” Butler said. “We just need to work on playing those one- and two-run games. We’ve had a lot of lopsided ones on both sides. The one-run games, we need to tighten up a little offensively and defensively against those.”
No doubt. The A’s (8-8) are 8-3 in games decided by three runs or more, 0-5 in those decided by two runs or fewer.
Wednesday’s blowout allowed Melvin to hand the ball to Arnold Leon for his major league debut. Leon pitched the ninth, taking the mound and seeing defending AL MVP Mike Trout digging in for the first batter of his career. He retired the Angels superstar on a fly to center. Leon gave up a run but struck out Collin Cowgill to end the game.
What a day for Leon, who was called up from Triple-A Nashville in the morning, flew all the way to Anaheim, pitched in his first game and then got optioned back to the minors afterward. The A’s are juggling their short-handed bullpen right now, with Chris Bassitt set to be recalled and join the 25-man roster for Thursday’s series finale.
Leon, 26, knew his stay would be short. He savored it after getting promoted last season for a doubleheader, but never getting into a game.
“I came here mentally prepared to relieve (Thursday),” he said. “I didn’t expect it today, so that was awesome. It really was. Good times.”
The good times on Wednesday night wouldn’t have been possible without Gray’s performance. He’s sporting a 1.91 ERA after four starts, with 19 strikeouts and five walks.
“He didn’t have his best stuff tonight, I’ll be honest,” Vogt said. “But when Sonny doesn’t have his best stuff, he makes pitches. He was locating better tonight and I think that’s what really helped him.”