Sonny Gray left his manager hanging Monday night, but such is Bob Melvin’s trust in his best pitcher that he was willing to take the heat, internally and otherwise, to let Gray chase his next dream.
“Oh, I’d have had to let him go out there and go after it,” the Oakland Athletics manager said with an explosive sigh after watching Gray take a no-hitter into the eighth inning of the Elephants’ Opening Night 8-0 win over Texas. “It wasn’t going to be very easy for me, because you don’t want to see him go up to say 120 and it become unsafe for a first start, but in that situation . . .”
Then his voice trailed off as he mentally thanked Ryan Rua for taking a difficult choice out of his hands.
It was Rua’s leadoff single in the eighth that broke up Gray’s no-hitter, an 0-1 fastball off the outer edge that catcher Stephen Vogt wished “had been just a little bit higher. It was a good pitch, but you have to tip your cap – Rua got a good swing on it.”
[INSTANT REPLAY: Gray flirts with no-hitter, A's blank Rangers]
But unlike Melvin, Vogt didn’t want to tip his cap at all. He was co-piloting this performance, and not just because of his three-run homer off Phil Klein in the seventh buried any thoughts of a Texas comeback. Vogt had seen Gray at his best, all the way down to throwing glorified batting practice fastballs at whim to Texas’ heat-seeking lineup. Gray was inventing things throughout the game, pitching by feel because, as Melvin has said more than once, “He just has that thing, that makeup.”
It is a gift that few pitchers have, and Gray might well be the best pitcher Melvin has ever managed, with the singular exception of Randy Johnson. He trusts Gray as he trusts few others, and he would have trusted him Monday night even if it meant a long, simmering discussion with the brain trust above him that holds pitch counts the way Stephen Hawking holds quantum mechanics.
But Melvin was also grateful for one other thing Monday night. Rua’s hit allowed him not to be dry-roasted by a raucous sellout crowd at La Colisee for nipping their fun in the bud. The A’s hadn’t won a season opener since 2006, or scored an Opening Day run since 2012, and this is a fan base that has a bit of betrayal on its sleeves after the off-season cleanout.
“This place has a special vibe when things are going good,” Melvin said. “It’s been a killer to see them come out and get let down right away, and then we have to build it back up. This was the kind of game they deserve – Gray’s going the way he was, we hit a couple of balls out, everybody’s happy.”
And if he’d had to ruin Gray’s no-hitter instead of Rua? Melvin sminced – smiled while wincing.
“Let’s just say I’m glad the decision was out of my hands.”
The A’s are again like a thoroughbred colt learning to run – unsteady, wobbling a bit, leaving its investors unsure as to the investment. But Melvin’s track record with such horses has been strong, and even though Seattle is the boutique pick to bludgeon the AL West, the A’s are just quirky enough and well-bred enough to keep its audience enthralled. Like every year, it won’t be an easy sell; A’s fans are devotedly skeptical and skeptically devoted.
But Sonny Gray and Ben Zobrist, the new left fielder whose first two at-bats produced a homer and a double, are the new core, and Ike Davis, the defrocked Met, may end up one of the game’s best defensive first basemen. Indeed, the A’s aren’t as they were before, but they’re not necessarily crushed by the difference.
And if nothing else, they have in Gray what the Giants have in Madison Bumgarner – a starting point, with an option to thrive. As long, that is, as Gray doesn’t scare Melvin into a coronary thrombosis by being too good for everyone’s well-being.