OAKLAND – As reporters gathered around him Saturday night, Sonny Gray briefly put on a fake black mustache and showed it to one of his teammates.
It was a gift from his young cousin in Tennessee, surely a playful nod to the mustaches that A’s starting pitchers have been growing out together.
Gray’s own facial hair isn’t coming in as fully as he hoped. Right now it appears to be the only thing about the big leagues that perplexes the rookie right-hander.
He tossed 6 2/3 shutout innings at the Tampa Bay Rays in a 2-1 A’s victory before a sellout crowd at the Coliseum.
[RECAP: Crisp leads A's past Rays]
His teammates knew he could spot his low 90’s fastball on the corner. They had seen the biting curve that draws such awkward swings.
But they couldn’t have known how he’d bounce back from adversity.
Gray, 23, was coming off his first poor start in the majors, having allowed six runs in 3 1/3 innings against the Orioles last Sunday. He rebounded from that Saturday in front of a charged-up home crowd, beating the team the A’s are battling for the American League’s top wild card spot.
“He’s well beyond his years as far as abilities and composure,” A’s catcher Stephen Vogt said. “He doesn’t get rattled by anything – doesn’t get rattled in the moment. You take the average 23 year old – Is he 23? I don’t know – and have a start like he did in Baltimore and bounce back like he did tonight, that shows his composure and ability to make adjustments.”
The adjustments involved locating his fastball better than he did at Camden Yards.
“I think the big thing was fastball command, keeping it down,” Gray said. “It’s something I struggled with in my last start. I elevated it. Tonight I was able to keep my fastball down and get a lot of ground balls."
What had the crowd buzzing early on, however, were the strikeouts. Gray fanned five of the first six batters he faced. He struck out the side in the second, getting Evan Longoria looking on a fastball that shaved the outside corner.
He stranded two runners in the fourth and a runner at third in the fifth. Gray scattered five hits with seven strikeouts and one walk. He’s tossed at least six innings in four of his five starts and sports a spiffy 2.57 ERA over seven major league appearances total.
Problem was, A’s hitters were struggling themselves against Rays right-hander Alex Cobb. They finally broke through when Vogt, a former Ray, tripled off the wall in right. Coco Crisp drove him in with a single. In the eighth, Crisp added his fifth homer in August, giving the A’s a two-run lead that proved important when closer Grant Balfour surrendered a run in the ninth.
The A’s got another victory over the Rays to move 1 ½ games ahead of them for the A.L.’s top wild card spot. But they also got convincing evidence that Gray is in the rotation to stay over the final four weeks of the regular season.
He’s only a rookie, but with Bartolo Colon still working his way back into form, is there an A’s starter besides Jarrod Parker that you’d rather have on the mound right now than Gray?
“He can pitch with two pitches when he has to -- his fastball and his curveball,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “His fastball goes both ways and sometimes even for the catcher it’s tough to catch him because he has such movement. Then he has the changeup and slider, and now all of a sudden, he’s a four-pitch guy.”
What Gray doesn’t have right now is a mustache worthy of boasting. The facial hair that rings his face barely looks like it requires a razor.
“If I trimmed everything else, I’d probably do a little better” with the mustache, he theorized. Consider that a work in progress.
On the mound, Gray has things figured out just fine.