Impressive right-hander has big-game experience from Vanderbilt days
Barry M. Bloom
OAKLAND -- Due to injury and circumstance, Sonny Gray, a 23-year-old rookie right-hander, will be making his 11th Major League start on Saturday for the A's against veteran Tigers ace Justin Verlander in Game 2 of the American League Division Series at O.co Coliseum (6 p.m. PT on TBS).
With A.J. Griffin out for the series because of a sore right elbow, A's manager Bob Melvin had to juggle the rotation behind Game 1 starter Bartolo Colon. When asked why he decided to start Gray on Saturday and Jarrod Parker in Game 3 if the best-of-five-series on Monday, Melvin expressed confidence in all his pitchers.
"We like all of [our starters] and they're going to pitch at some point in time, anyway," Melvin said. "Jarrod had the experience of pitching in Game 1 [in Detroit] last year, so we're comfortable with that. You would prefer to pitch Sonny in a home game to start, even though he has the stuff to pitch there."
Parker did indeed work Game 1 at Comerica Park last year, losing to Verlander and the Tigers, 3-1, in a series Oakland lost in five games. Gray has been a fixture as the No. 5 starter in the A's rotation since he was recalled for good from Triple-A Sacramento and made his first Major League start on Aug. 10 at Toronto.
Now, he finds himself throwing the second game in the playoffs only two years removed from starting for Vanderbilt in the College World Series.
Key stat: Verlander ended the season on a high note, striking out 22 in 12 shutout innings in his last two starts.
Key stat: With runners on base, Gray has held hitters to a .180 batting average and .290 slugging percentage.
At O.co Coliseum
2013: 1 GS, 1-0, 1.50 ERA Career: 10 GS, 5-4, 2.38 ERA
2013: 6 GS, 3-1, 1.99 ERA Career: 6 GS, 3-1, 1.99 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: 2 GS, 1-1, 3.27 ERA Career: 15 GS, 8-6, 2.48 ERA
2013: N/A Career: N/A
Loves to face: Eric Sogard, 0-for-7, 2 K Hates to face:: Coco Crisp, 8-for-24, 2 2B
Loves to face: N/A Hates to face:: N/A
Why he'll win: Verlander was dominant against the A's in last year's playoffs, going 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 16 innings.
Why he'll win: Gray has pitched well at home, posting a 0.93 WHIP and striking out 38 in 40 2/3 innings while only giving up nine earned runs.
Pitcher beware: Verlander hasn't pitched at his usual elite level, ending the year with his highest ERA (3.46) and WHIP (1.31) since 2008.
Pitcher beware: Gray has never pitched in the postseason and his last five starts were against teams with losing records.
Bottom line: Verlander must get ahead in counts. When he falls behind, hitters have a .995 OPS against him compared to a .453 OPS when he's ahead.
Bottom line: It's important for Gray to set the tone early. This season, he owns a 5.10 ERA over the first three innings. Afterward, his ERA drops to 0.53.
"It's something you really look forward to, growing up, and hopefully someday you get a chance to do it," Gray said. "Fortunately for me, this is my second, maybe third month in the big leagues and I'm getting to start a playoff game. There are a lot of guys in this game who said they wished they'd gotten the opportunity and they just haven't been on a playoff team. I'm very fortunate and I'm just going to try and go out there and make the most of it."
"I'm sure I'll have butterflies, but I don't think there's anything I'm going to do to take those away," Gray said. "It's a good feeling to have that. It adds to the excitement a little bit more. Maybe I'll take a Tums or something. I wasn't surprised, no, about starting Game 2. I had a little bit of a feeling. I expected to pitch somewhere in the postseason rotation. I'm just glad to have the opportunity."
Gray is one of a group of former Vanderbilt players involved in this postseason, joining Rays left-hander David Price, Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez and Braves hurler Mike Minor. In his junior season, Gray was 12-4 with a 2.43 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 2011 as he helped pitch Vanderbilt into the College World Series for the first time.
Gray lost the opener as his school was eliminated by Oregon State and the A's drafted him 18th overall in that year's First-Year Player Draft. Gray said that experience gave him a glimpse of playoff pressure.
"I mean, the College World Series tournament is very similar," Gray said. "You have to do some things off the field that you normally wouldn't do for a regular game. I would say leading up to the game, it's probably very similar."
About pitching at home rather than on the road, Gray added:
"I think for every pitcher, it's more comfortable pitching at home. For the guys here, it's great to pitch in the Coliseum. The fans are great. You have the field that you can use to your advantage. I think that every pitcher would rather pitch at home, no matter where they're at. It's just more comfortable and you do it a lot more. You're comfortable with the mound and what the scenery is. I think it's just a comfort thing."
Gray was brought up from the Minors for the first time this season on July 10 and was used twice out of the bullpen before being sent back down to continue his development as a starter. In his 10 starts since returning to the big club, he's 5-3 with a 2.85 ERA and 61 strikeouts with a 1.13 WHIP in 60 innings.
When asked about Gray's evolution, Melvin said he was comfortable enough to start him in a playoff series.
"I haven't seen any evolution at all," Melvin said. "He's gotten here and been good. I think the right thing to do earlier in the season was bring him up and get a taste of the big leagues. We used him in a relief role and he did well. Then he went back down in a starting role. And he's been good since we brought him back up in a starting role. He mixes it up. He has a great breaking ball that moves on top of a fastball and it moves every which way.
"And the fact that he played in big-time games in college, you can see he's a competitor. He gets better as the game goes along. A lot of things play into being [just] out of college, bringing him to the big leagues and expecting him to perform in a role like this, his competitiveness plays into that."