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Among pitching elite, Gray is an early riser

Not yet a year into Major League career, righty is key to A's postseason hopes @TracyRingolsby

OAKLAND -- Oakland A's right-hander Sonny Gray received a rude awakening on Wednesday morning. The landlord decided to test the fire alarm in his apartment building. Not that he needed a wakeup call.

Gray may be undersized -- at 5-foot-11, he falls below that 6-foot-right-hander line of demarcation so often mentioned in scouting circles. He may not have a full season of big league experience yet, having been called up by the A's on July 10 last season. And Gray may be painfully soft spoken in front of the media, politely answering questions as politically correct as possible.

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At game time, however, Gray is the guy Oakland wants on the mound.

That's why at the age of 24, and less than three years removed from signing his first pro contract, Gray has stepped in and become the go-to guy in the A's injury-plagued rotation, a key part of Oakland's bid for a third consecutive American League West title.

That's why on Wednesday afternoon, despite his struggles in his last four starts, Gray was the guy the A's felt comfortable having on the mound to provide some relief for a worn-thin bullpen. Neither lefty Fernando Abad nor right-hander Dan Otero were available. They both worked the three previous games and both had hit a rough spot. Abad gave up two home runs on Monday, the only extra-base hits he has allowed this season.

"We needed [Gray] to go seven," said manager Bob Melvin. "A lot of times a starting pitcher knows that. They don't put a lot of pressure on themselves, but in the back of their mind, they want to give the bullpen a rest."

Gray didn't disappoint. He turned in seven strong innings in the A's 4-2 victory over the Rangers, helping Oakland not only climb a season-best 16 games above .500 (44-28), but also lay claim to the best record in baseball with the 15th victory in its past 20 home games.

Not that Gray was thinking about any of that. That's not his way.

"I don't put pressure on myself, but in the back of my mind, I want to give the bullpen a rest," said Gray. "But every time out there, I want to go seven, eight innings. When I am able to do that, it is huge."

Gray has pitched into the seventh inning in seven of his last 13 starts, bouncing back from back-to-back defeats to improve his record to 7-3. He leads the A's with six games in which he has pitched seven or more innings. Offseason free-agent signing Scott Kazmir has done it six times. The rest of Oakland's starters combined have worked seven or more innings eight times.

The A's are 4-1 in Gray's starts after a loss, part of how they have been able to avoid extended losing streaks.

No big deal, said Gray.

And it's no big deal to Gray that he has become the de facto ace of a rotation that lost Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin to Tommy John surgery and Drew Pomeranz to a fractured right hand when he punched a chair after getting knocked out of Monday's start against Texas.

"That's something every pitcher needs to think of himself as, the best pitcher, for the mental approach," said Gray. "He has to have that mind state."

That's how Gray pitched on Wednesday. Oh, there was a momentary blip in the top of the fifth. The Rangers erased a 2-0 lead, only to see the A's regain the edge in the bottom of the inning.

And in his strong ability to self-evaluate, Gray knew he let things get a bit out of kilter in that inning. He walked Rougned Odor with one out, Leonys Martin with two outs and then gave up back-to-back singles to Elvis Andrus and Shin-Soo Choo.

But Gray shut it down right there. In his six other innings, he did not walk a batter and three of the four hits he allowed came with two outs.

There were no signs of a hangover from those two previous starts -- a 7-0 loss to the Yankees and 6-3 loss at Baltimore.

"When I first came up, I talked with some of the older guys and they said at times, people forget that baseball is a hard game" said Gray. "There are going to be rough parts. You have to deal with them. I haven't forgotten that.

"I know what I am able to do, and when I have a good game, I don't pat myself on the back. When I have a bad one, I don't dwell on that. Like [Thursday], I'll come in and be focused on the Mets [on Tuesday in New York]. My effort will be in getting ready for that game."

It's all the A's can ask of Gray.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for

Oakland Athletics, Sonny Gray