OAKLAND – As the pressure mounted with each inning of Sonny Gray’s no-hit bid Monday night, the man doing his best to ease the tension in the A’s dugout was the pitcher himself.
Manager Bob Melvin was trying to give Gray his space, not looking to jinx things. But it was Gray who sought him out looking to make some chit-chat.
“He’s not the type that sits in a corner,” Melvin said. “He’s walking up to me in between innings talking about walk-up songs. And I’m like, ‘Get away from me. Nobody wants to talk to you right now.’ That’s how he keeps himself loose.”
Something about the charged-up atmosphere of a big game brings out the best in Gray. On Monday, he took a no-hitter into the eighth and held the Rangers to one hit over eight dominant innings.
The A’s had dropped a major league-record 10 games in a row on Opening Night, often taking the life out of a sold-out Coliseum crowd with a deflating performance.
But they flipped the script in Monday’s 8-0 thrashing of Texas, playing an extremely crisp game with Gray out front setting the pace. Typically the right-hander shows up to the park at about 4 p.m. for a 7:05 game. He arrived at the Coliseum at 1 p.m. for this game, raring to go.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Gray flirts with no-hitter, A's blank Rangers]
“Whenever (it’s) the main stage, Sonny wants to be on it,” catcher Stephen Vogt said. “That’s what makes him so good.”
On Monday, he was at his best. Changing speeds effectively on his two-seam fastball, Gray sprinkled in a little-used slider to complement his curve and changeup.
“For a guy you think of as a two-pitch pitcher, with a changeup now and then, he can turn himself into a 4- and 5-pitch pitcher,” Melvin said.
On a night the A’s unveiled their brand-new, $10 million hi-def scoreboards before a sellout crowd, they delivered an all-around performance that suited the occasion. Their defense was outstanding, with new first baseman Ike Davis putting on a clinic at first base. Ben Zobrist clubbed a two-run homer in his first at-bat with Oakland and added a double.
That more than offset his sixth-inning error in left field when he lost Leonys Martin’s ball in the lights. Zobrist became the first player to homer in his first A’s at-bat on Opening Day since Josh Willingham in 2011.
“First at-bat in the all-whites,” Zobrist said. “All I wanted to do was get the run in. I didn’t try to do too much, and that’s usually when good things happen.”
Vogt felt certain he would be on the receiving end of a no-no. And when the A’s made a couple of outstanding plays to rob the Rangers of hits, he thought destiny was unfolding.
“He’s fun to catch no matter what,” Vogt said of Gray. “But when he’s on like nights like tonight, there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to throw a no-hitter.”
But Gray tried to elevate an 0-2 fastball to Ryan Rua in the eighth, and Rua grounded a clean single into right field.
That ended his bid to throw just the second Opening Day no-hitter in big league history. Bob Feller threw one on April 16, 1940.
“He put a great swing on it,” Gray said. “I wouldn’t take that pitch back.”
But his reaction showed how badly he wanted the no-hitter. And Melvin said afterward he believes Gray will get one before his career is over. Melvin said he didn’t want to Gray to go past the 100-pitch limit in his first start of the season. Doing the math in his head as the no-hit innings ticked away, he knew he might have a tough decision to make about whether to let Gray finish it off. He wound up throwing 98 pitches in eight innings.
“It was weighing on me a little bit,” Melvin admitted. “I certainly wanted him to get a no-hitter, but it was a little bit of a relief that he didn’t have to go nine innings.”
Pitchers with no-hit potential like Gray will put that type of pressure on their managers, even if they don’t reflect that pressure themselves. Figure it won’t be the last time Melvin gets put on the spot with Gray on the hill.