OAKLAND – For all the positive traits that Sonny Gray offers his team, perhaps the most important thing is predictability.
The A’s have played an erratic brand of baseball for most of this season, from game to game and sometimes inning to inning. With Gray on the mound, there’s a feeling of confidence and stability that should be present whenever it’s the ace’s turn to pitch.
Oakland jumped out to a four-run lead after three innings Friday against the Yankees. Gray took the baton from there and made sure things wouldn’t veer off script in a 6-2 victory before a home crowd that had plenty to cheer about.
“You don’t want to let up, but you almost feel with a lead that they’re not gonna get to Sonny,” catcher Josh Phegley said. “We were pretty comfortable, and that’s when we can settle down and the bats kind of come a little more alive, and the defense. You can feel that energy. …. I think it’s just confidence with us and knowing we can beat teams. Sonny gives us that confidence when he’s on the mound.”
Suddenly, things aren’t looking so bleak. The A’s (19-32) have won five of their past seven, and though it’s still a steep climb back to relevance in the American League West, this team can only be concerned with itself right now. And there are signs that, just maybe, things are turning in the right direction.
“We're getting leads now, we're holding them,” manager Bob Melvin said. “We're getting better at-bats, we're getting breakthrough hits. Cleaner games defensively for the most part. A lot of things that have been our Achilles’ heel, we're starting to get better at.”
The optimism begins with consistent starting pitching. The rotation has allowed just five earned runs in 44 2/3 innings over the past seven games. Extend it out farther, and Oakland’s starters have posted a 2.37 ERA over the past 17 contests.
Scott Kazmir’s recent shoulder tightness obviously provided a scare. His start is being pushed back, but Kazmir said Friday that he was never worried it was a major issue. But given that development, and the fact that Gray left his last start early due to an ankle contusion, the A’s needed some affirmation that the right-hander was still in top form.
No doubt he was Friday. Gray (6-2) held the Yankees to two runs on four hits over eight innings. His ERA leads the AL at 1.82, and the 25-year-old appears on course for his first All-Star appearance.
Gray and Phegley both said his success began with a fastball that he used to aggressively pound the strike zone.
“Those guys were having a hard time squaring it up,” Phegley said. “And that slider to lefties. When you get that hard a fastball, with that kind of movement coming in there, then he throws that slider in the dirt off of it, not too many guys took it tonight.”
Gray got help from his defense. Regular catcher Stephen Vogt, playing first base for a second day in a row, made two great picks on short-hop throws and added a nifty backhand stop of Brian McCann’s grounder in the seventh. Vogt got a different perspective on Gray’s mastery than he normally does behind the plate.
“Obviously, the best seat in the house is the one Phegley had tonight,” Vogt said. “You could see the determination (with Gray). It’s kind of nice to sit back and relax and watch him pitch. He’s just so special, and what he did tonight was really impressive, and exactly what we needed to continue on this path.”
Where will that path ultimately lead? Who knows?
But the A’s are beginning to play a more stable brand of baseball, and that’s a start.