ANAHEIM — An 8-1 loss to the Angels on Tuesday night left the A’s in need of turning the page.
They get an opportunity to do so Wednesday, when Sonny Gray takes the ball for his first start since Aug. 6. Don’t tune in late or you might miss it. Gray will be out there just long enough to break a sweat and get the taste of major league competition back, but the right-hander is looking forward to it after a strained forearm has sidelined him for the past seven-and-a-half weeks.
“It has been a long time,” Gray said. “Yeah, I’m excited. I feel good so hopefully everything will go good and there will be no issues.”
The understandable question is why bother to run him out there at all in game No. 158 of a season that saw the A’s fall out of playoff contention by July. Gray, who threw around 50 pitches (counting both warm-ups and facing hitters) Saturday in a simulated game, says he’s had no issues with his forearm since going on the disabled list, and that there hasn’t been concern of any long-term injury risk since an MRI showed only inflammation.
Manager Bob Melvin said Gray likely wouldn’t go more than 30 pitches Wednesday, so it would seem two innings might be his limit. As for the purpose of him making the start in the first place, Gray said it’s not for peace of mind that he’s OK physically. He also says he doesn’t subscribe to the “finish on a high note” theory, after he’s gone 5-11 with a 5.74 ERA in a perplexingly difficult season.
Gray has insisted all along that his current rehab has him ready to pitch in a game. The A’s minor league affiliates are all done, so this is the natural next step.
“We’ll play it by ear,” Melvin said. “We’re not going to push anything. Normally when you’re looking at one inning, you’re saying no more than 30 pitches. And based on what he’s done, that’s probably it. Whether or not I’d even send him out for a second inning if he’s in the low 20’s, I’m not sure yet. We’ll figure something out, but it won’t be very long.”
So Wednesday’s series finale between the bottom two teams in the American League West suddenly carries some buzz from the A’s perspective. In a way, it’s reminiscent of another late September game at Angel Stadium that took place last year, though circumstances are different.
The A’s gave Barry Zito somewhat of a ceremonial final start of his career against the Angels on Sept. 30, knowing he was likely to retire after the season. Zito, also on a limited pitch count, gave Oakland a decent four innings of two-run ball. Wednesday’s scenario will be similar in that the unknown variable is just how long Gray can stretch his outing given the pitch limit.
He was asked if it would feel strange getting psyched up for his return to a big league mound, with the knowledge that it’s going to be very brief.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s not a last-minute (decision). It’s not something to think about. Just when I’m out there, just try to get back to getting people out for no matter how long I’m out there.”
Daniel Mengden didn’t mince words describing his final start of 2016. He trailed 1-0 entering the bottom of the fourth, when seven consecutive Angels reached base in a seven-run rally that included Jefry Marte’s grand slam. Mengden allowed eight runs on nine hits in just three-plus innings.
“Execution was terrible, pitch quality was terrible. Just a terrible inning,” Mengden said. “It was pretty bad. It sucks to end that way. It’s not how I wanted it to happen.”
Melvin said staying aggressive in the strike zone is the key for the 23-year-old rookie, who finished 2-9 with a 6.50 ERA in 14 starts with the A’s.
“I think he learned that when he’s aggressive and gets ahead, he can have success,” Melvin said. “It’s when he’s on the run and guys are on base, maybe he isn’t as confident in his fastball or throwing the ball over the plate early in the count.”
Mengden did say he’ll take some positives into the winter.
“Coming up from Double-A, Triple-A and getting a chance to be here, as young as I am,” he said. “I’d say way more positives than negatives.”