OAKLAND — The consensus in the home clubhouse was that Sonny Gray took a step in the right direction Tuesday night, and A’s fans can decide for themselves how much consolation to draw from that.
Certainly the numbers didn’t tell a pretty story in an 8-2 loss to the Seattle Mariners. Gray was charged with seven runs on 11 hits —both tying his career highs — and got burned on two home-run pitches that simply caught too much plate.
In his defense, it was a 5-1 game when he exited in the eighth with two runners aboard. Marc Rzepczynski gave up a three-run homer to Kyle Seager that did no favors for Gray’s final line.
Ask manager Bob Melvin, and he took heart from Gray’s improved ball/strike ratio compared to his previous outing, when he lasted just two innings against Detroit in the shortest start of his career. Gray walked just one against the Mariners and kept his pitch count in check well enough to pitch into the eighth inning.
Ask catcher Josh Phegley, and he was encouraged that Gray had good stuff and the “normal movement” on his pitches.
Ask Gray himself, and the pitcher said he felt he had the best stuff Tuesday night that he’s had all season.
On nights like this, it can be tricky to sort through the numbers, supplement them with the comments and feedback from the game’s central characters, and draw the true conclusion. What’s undeniable right now is that the A’s No. 1 starter is showing more vulnerability than typical, particularly early in the season.
Gray (3-3) posted a 1.82 ERA through the end of May last season , and a 2.31 mark through the end of May in 2014. Right now, his ERA sits at 4.84 after six starts. He’s allowed five home runs so far. In 2015, he didn’t allow his fifth homer until June 25.
To be sure, Gray’s excellent first two months last season had him positioned as an early Cy Young front-runner, and to fall short of that standard doesn’t necessarily signal that he’s pitching poorly. But he’s far from his top form, and the way the A’s are swinging the bats right now, the margin for error is slim for whoever is taking the mound.
“It’s been a struggle for us,” Melvin said. “(Mariners starter Hisashi) Iwakuma has been struggling some and leaving some balls up, and we weren’t able to take advantage of a guy that wasn’t pitching too terribly well. We have not hit our stride offensively yet for sure.”
Gray, asked if he took encouragement from pitching into the eighth inning, said he did to a degree but added: “It was important, but you look back and I didn’t really do my job,” he said. “I didn’t put us in a good (position) to win.”
Phegley, even while saying Gray had good stuff Tuesday, pointed out that the right-hander is a work in progress at this point in the season.
“I know he’s been scuffling, but I think he found his stuff tonight, and I don’t know if he’s trusting it quite as much as he should,” Phegley said. “He looked like had his normal stuff, and I think that’s a good starting point for him to get back on track. … Everything had the normal action it was supposed to have on it. I think he needs to just trust it and go with it and just get back to the normal Sonny.”
One thing that wasn’t said by anyone in the clubhouse after the game but needs to be brought up: Whenever Gray takes the mound and the A’s don’t come away with a ‘W’, or at least put up a competitive battle, it’s got to be a little more deflating than the typical loss. Each of his last two starts, the A’s have lost by five or more runs.
But Phegley, asked if these losses sting more, steers the conversation back to an offense that’s been held to three runs or less in 18 of 28 games so far.
“I don’t think we should count on our pitchers to throw a shutout to win a game every time,” he said, “so we just need to get the bats rolling and score some more runs.”