HOUSTON — The A’s got beat up on the scoreboard over the weekend but left for Milwaukee believing they got healthier at the top of their rotation.
That was one important takeaway from Sunday’s 5-2 loss to the Astros, when Sonny Gray returned from the disabled list and displayed some of the familiar form that made him a Cy Young finalist last season.
The other conclusion after the A’s were swept by Houston was that they still haven’t figured out how to take a burst of momentum and run with it. Having won five in a row heading into this eight-game, three-city road trip, the A’s shifted into reverse again by dropping three straight to an Astros team they were leading by a half-game for third place in the American League West.
Now Oakland is 9 1/2 back and alone in the division cellar, having lost three games in the standings in three days.
“It just goes back to going out and competing every day,” catcher Stephen Vogt said. “Getting consistency from all three sides of the baseball. Today we threw the ball around a little bit and that hurt us.”
The silver lining came in watching Gray show the zip on his fastball and bite on his breaking stuff that’s been missing since mid-April. He allowed one run over five innings and 69 pitches — manager Bob Melvin said the right-hander was on a strict 75-pitch limit. Most importantly, Gray appeared to have the command that had eluded him during a five-start stretch where he went 0-4 with a 10.38 ERA before he was placed on the DL.
“I got back to kind of what I’ve done for the majority of my career,” Gray said, “attacking in the zone with my heater. My curve ball is something I was working on my last three bullpens. It was a lot better today.”
Gray hit 96 miles per hour with his fastball and consistently sat in the 94-95 range. His slider was an effective putaway pitch, and he wasn’t spiking pitches into the dirt, a common sight in his previous five outings. Gray said the time off to let his strained trapezius muscle heal was important, and that he’s able to “get out front more” on his pitches, which improves his command.
“The ball is coming out with life and velocity and my curve ball’s sharp, so that was the big difference,” Gray said. “… The ball can move as much as it wants, but late life is what you want. That’s when you see a lot more grounders and a lot more early contact.”
He originally was scheduled for a Single-A rehab start Sunday. But Gray said when he learned that Rich Hill wouldn’t be able to start Sunday because of a groin strain, he texted head trainer Nick Paparesta and said he could fill in Sunday.
“I wanted to get back with the guys and I wanted to pitch,” Gray said. “If I felt comfortable enough to pitch in Stockton, I felt like I’d be ready to go here.”
With Gray at 69 pitches after five innings, Melvin said he didn’t want to send his ace back out for the sixth as he was already bumping up against the 75-pitch limit. Things went south for the bullpen, as Daniel Coulombe allowed a game-tying homer to Evan Gattis and Ryan Dull committed a costly throwing error that aided Houston’s go-ahead rally in the seventh.
But seeing Gray in sharp form gave Melvin encouragement that the A’s could finally have a solid 1-2 punch atop the rotation, provided Hill returns at full strength. The A’s are tentatively targeting one of three games next weekend in Cincinnati for Hill’s return.
“To have two guys like that, it will certainly give us a nice little boost,” Melvin said, “because some of the (lack of) innings we’ve gotten from the rotation recently has taxed the bullpen quite a bit.”