He took the mound against the A’s biggest rival, pitching in a nationally televised game and opposing one of the American League’s most dominant starters.
Was it coincidence that Sonny Gray threw the first shutout of his major league career Monday night?
The Oakland A’s young right-hander showed last October that he has a taste for the spotlight. He confirmed that in a 4-0 blanking of the Texas Rangers that opened this three-game showdown between the American League West’s top contenders.
The A’s needed to make a stand after letting the Rangers come into the Coliseum and sweep three games last week. They needed a revitalizing effort after dropping the final two of a four-game series to division doormat Houston over the weekend.
Gray, 24, was there to provide it, spinning a three-hitter and facing just three batters over the minimum in Oakland’s first complete game of 2014.
But the biggest takeaway from this night: Matched up against Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish, Gray was the one to rise to the occasion. He turned in his best start of the season, a performance that challenges his Game 2 duel against Justin Verlander in last fall’s A.L.D.S. as the highlight of Gray’s brief career.
And Darvish? He goes back to the drawing board, unable to figure out why the sight of green and gold brings out his worst. He is now 1-7 (with a 4.73 ERA) in his career against the A’s, 29-12 against everyone else.
Darvish was pulled after 3 1/3 innings Monday, the shortest outing of his big league career. And after a somewhat encouraging six-inning stint last week in Oakland, Monday’s start must have felt like one step forward, two steps back.
Meanwhile, Gray turned in the kind of outing – in the kind of high-profile game – that the A’s envision getting from him for years to come.
First-inning struggles have been a hallmark of his season so far, and he walked his first batter of the game for the fourth time in six starts. But Gray coaxed two early double-play grounders that helped him avoid trouble. He recorded 13 outs on the ground as opposed to just six through the air. He struck out six and walked one, perplexing the Rangers and feeling confident enough to even dust off his slider, which Gray rarely uses.
After recording the final out, Gray pounded his glove, wiped his forehead and flashed a smile as catcher John Jaso rushed out to give him a hug.
There’s a reason the A’s brass was confident in handing Gray the ball on Opening Night even though this is his first full major league season. Manager Bob Melvin likes to say Gray has the pedigree of a big-game pitcher, going back to his days as Vanderbilt University’s ace.
Monday’s start was a big game, or at least as big as they come in April. And on a night when the A’s needed their best pitcher to be at the top of his game, Gray was more than up to the task.