Gray slowed by tone-setting homer that ends astonishing streak

Twins right-hander yields rare long ball off his sweeper pitch to Abreu, the first in over a year

October 11th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- The day was July 14, 2022. It was a run-of-the-mill matchup between the Twins and White Sox.

Minnesota starter yielded a home run to Luis Robert Jr. on a sweeper in the fourth inning, as his team fell into a hole it couldn’t climb out of. Gray needed to settle in. He watched the next batter, José Abreu, walk to the plate, and Gray turned the page, beginning an astonishing streak unlike any the Twins had seen before.

That was, until Abreu decided to end it 453 days later.

Now with the Astros, Abreu set the tone in Tuesday afternoon’s Game 3 of the American League Division Series, sending a Gray sweeper a Statcast-projected 442 feet into the second deck in left field in the first inning at Target Field.

It snapped a streak of 675 sweepers thrown by Gray -- dating back to Robert Jr.’s blast -- without allowing a homer.

All good things eventually come to an end. Gray wasn’t going to last forever without being tagged for a home run on this specific offering. The problem was, it came at the worst time for the Twins, as the offense was unable to catch up in an eventual 9-1 loss. Down 2-1 in the series, Minnesota will try to avoid elimination on Wednesday.

This was as uncharacteristic of an outing as Gray has had all season. When it comes to his sweeper, specifically, he ranked first in the Majors in strikeouts (108), opponents’ average (.097) and opponents’ slugging (.118) of those pitchers who threw at least 300 sweepers.

“It wasn't great today,” Gray said of the offering. “It was just kind of slower.”

Gray’s spin and velocity were slightly down, but nothing was alarming. He has thrown a sweeper consistently since 2018, according to Statcast, and in that time, he allowed just eight homers on the pitch entering the day.

“You can’t expect a guy to go out there every single game, day in and day out, and be one of the best pitchers in baseball,” Twins catcher Ryan Jeffers said. “One thing I promise is that Sonny didn’t stop giving everything he had.”

Gray wasn’t put in the best position in the first inning. After a leadoff single by Jose Altuve, Gray punched out Alex Bregman and appeared to have given his team an opportunity to escape the jam with a potential inning-ending double play.

But when a ground ball down the first-base line off the bat of Yordan Alvarez went under Twins first baseman Alex Kirilloff’s glove, it opened the door for the Astros’ offense to take advantage.

“It’s a play that needs to be made,” Kirilloff said. “It just changes the complexion of the game right away, making that play, a double-play ball to get out of the inning, it’s 0-0 and we’re coming up in the bottom of the first. It’s a different game.”

After an RBI single and Abreu’s three-run homer in the first, Gray locked in. But when he got to the fifth, he made the same mistake to Bregman that he made to Abreu: A hanging sweeper over the middle of the plate, marking the first time Gray had given up two homers on a sweeper in the same game.

It was also the first time that Gray experienced a multi-homer outing since Sept. 24, 2021, with the Reds. Once he joined the Twins, Gray went 56 consecutive regular-season starts without a multi-homer game, which was the longest for the club since it moved to Minneapolis, besting Dean Chance’s 46 straight starts.

“If we're sitting here and [Gray] gave up one or two [runs], which very easily could have been the case if we just make the plays,” manager Rocco Baldelli said, “we're sitting here saying, Sonny gave us a good start.”

It wasn’t just the one offering that held Minnesota back in Game 3. Gray only induced six whiffs out of 40 swings (15%) on his full arsenal. He only had one start with a lower whiff rate this season (13.6% in a loss to the Angels on Sept. 23).

“He has five really good pitches, and I think [we were] just fortunate enough to put some good swings on it and square it up when you can,” Bregman said. “He’s one of the best, so we knew it was going to be tough and be a grind.”

Gray has been everything -- and more -- the Twins could’ve asked for this season. He owned a 2.79 ERA with 183 strikeouts in 184 innings and an MLB-best 2.83 FIP. This isn’t the ending he wants.

Gray is set to be a free agent after this season. Where he’ll continue his career is unknown. But the Twins know one thing, for sure: They don’t want this to be the final memory he has with Minnesota.

"He's picked us up all year long,” reliever Emilio Pagán said. “He's one of the best pitchers in the game and it's up to us to give him another start in a Twins uniform.

“It's up to us to come out here tomorrow and match their intensity."