Gray matter: A's make smart move with rookie
Oakland's decision to go with young right-hander turns out to be no-brainer
OAKLAND -- The decision by the A's baseball people to start rookie right-hander Sonny Gray against the Tigers in Game 2 of their American League Division Series on Saturday night was certainly a prescient one.
It was made collectively and executed to perfection by manager Bob Melvin as almost all baseball decisions are determined in an organization now famous for its use of analytics.
But metrics were not the determining factor, Melvin said after Gray matched Justin Verlander pitch for pitch and put the A's in position for a walk-off 1-0 win at delirious O.co Coliseum to tie the best-of-five series at a game apiece.
"I don't think it had anything to do with numbers," Melvin said of the decision to start Gray, 23, on Saturday night and then Jarrod Parker, 24, on Monday at Comerica Park in Game 3. "We just wanted Sonny pitching in a place he was comfortable in and had pitched before.
"And Jarrod had started the first game [of the ALDS] last year in Detroit. It was as simple as that."
Gray, making only his 11th big league start since being called up from Triple-A Sacramento on Aug. 10, looked like he had pitched in the postseason forever, even outlasting Verlander, the former AL Cy Young Award winner. Verlander left the scoreless tie after seven innings and Gray was removed after eight and 111 pitches, having allowed only four hits, while walking two and striking out nine.
"For a 23-year-old kid on the stage he was on tonight, you can't say enough about the job he did," said catcher Stephen Vogt, who caught Gray in the Minors and drove home the game winner with a bases-loaded, ninth-inning base hit. "It's just a testament to the kid he is. I've had the joy to catch him during the year at Triple-A and in the big leagues and he's been the same kid every day.
"Today we were joking around like we always do. You could tell down in the bullpen he was going to have a great night. He didn't change anything he was. He didn't change anything about him. He just went out there on this stage and stayed Sonny Gray."
Gray, who pitched two years ago for Vanderbilt, losing an elimination game in the College World Series, was unflappable.
In the third inning, when he came in high and tight on Torii Hunter, backing him off the plate, the Tigers' right fielder pointed at him and chirped: "Stay away from my head," Vogt said.
"I don't mind being pitched inside, but don't throw at somebody's head," Hunter said afterward. "You go hit and let me throw at your face. Why would you do that?"
Gray came back and struck out Hunter swinging. Heading back across the plate to the Tigers' dugout, Hunter gave a quick glare over his shoulder at Gray, who continued to pitch harder and harder, hitting the 96-mph mark four times in his next series of pitches.
"He's known as a great guy," Gray said about Hunter. "I remember two years ago during my first Spring Training, facing him when he was with the Angels. He hit a line drive up the middle and nearly took my head off. But [tonight] it really got me fired up a little bit. After that, I had a little extra adrenaline."
As if Gray needed anymore motivation. Showing the composure of a veteran, he wound up whiffing the side with another swinging strikeout of Miguel Cabrera.
"His composure is excitement," Melvin said. "He loves to pitch. He's into it. He's into every pitch and you can tell he enjoys doing it."
Gray took it another step higher in the fifth inning. With runners on first and third, Gray struck out Austin Jackson swinging and gave Vogt enough time to nail Jose Iglesias trying to steal second for a big double play. It was Detroit's last real threat of the game.
Vogt has a vague resemblance to actor Russell Crowe and Gray looks like a 16-year-old. The fact that they are so familiar with each other was crucial to the execution of that play.
"I had a feeling [Iglesias] was going to go on 3-1 or 3-2," Vogt said. "With him going on 3-2, [Gray] made a great pitch on the outside corner that cut away from Austin's bat, and I was able to put the throw on the money. That was a huge play for us in a lot of ways."
It was an elbow injury to A.J. Griffin, taking him out of the playoff mix, that necessitated the A's shuffling their rotation. The numbers may not have been the difference, but they certainly told the tale. Not only had Gray never pitched at Comerica Park, his ERA was about two runs higher on the road than at home.
The decision to throw him at the Coliseum turned out to be a no-brainer and now gives the A's a chance to win this series.
"It was very exciting and I was very glad to get the opportunity," Gray said. "I knew there was going to be a lot of adrenaline and how I harnessed that adrenaline was going to be a big factor in the game. Coming out early, I wasn't as nervous, I wasn't as amped up as I thought I would be.
"You work hard for something like this. I knew I would be here. It was awesome."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.