Ace, now mentor, Gray ready to lead by example

Righty hopes to maintain weight down the stretch to stay strong

February 20th, 2016

MESA, Ariz. -- Even without mentor Scott Kazmir by his side this spring, A's ace Sonny Gray still plans to heed his good friend's advice.

"Kaz would always say, 'Don't peak too early,'" Gray said upon reporting to camp Saturday morning. "Just gradually get ready for the season. That's something that's helped me a lot and hopefully something I'll be able to help some other people with."

Gray will have no shortage of listeners.

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The 26-year-old right-hander, who lobbied Kazmir to return to Oakland before the left-hander signed with the Dodgers this winter, is still young, preparing for just his third full big league season. But in that time, he's secured ace status, punched a ticket to the All-Star Game and finished third in 2015 Cy Young Award voting after going 14-7 with a 2.73 ERA. Soon, he'll be tapped for his second consecutive Opening Day start.

Gray sometimes shrugs at his rising status, as he did Saturday -- two weeks after appearing in a national Super Bowl ad -- when asked about being the budding face of the franchise. He simply wants to pitch, and pitch well, and perhaps offer some guidance along the way to the youngsters hoping to crack the rotation, specifically as it relates to successfully preparing for a season.

"I always have high expectations for myself," said Gray, who will follow last year's plan and throw a few extra bullpen sessions during the first week of exhibition games rather than start. "Coming in this spring, it's not really any different, except coming in maybe being a little more vocal with the younger guys if they have any questions or anything.

"But for myself, don't look too far ahead, just stay healthy, get out there on the mound every fifth day, and all the work and talent and everything should take over. There are going to be some ups and downs. There always is. It's just about managing the downs and turning them around as quick as possible."

To that end, Gray tacked on five pounds this winter as part of his efforts to sustain strength down the stretch and fight off the sluggish feelings that often accompany the second half. He checked into camp at 185 pounds and would prefer to keep that number from slipping. At times last year, he was down to 178 pounds.

"Whenever you go through a couple seasons and you're a little more experienced, you realize what works for you, and he feels like he needs to be a little bit heavier and a little bit stronger," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "Toward the end of the season he's been beat up a couple years, and I think this is as much a mental thing for him, thinking, 'If I can put on a little bit more weight, then if I lose some along the way, I can still stay strong.' He's a very focused kid, he's very aware of what his body is telling him, and he's always trying to get better."

"You watch Sonny and think there's no way he can get better, and then he just does," catcher Stephen Vogt said.

At the same time, Gray has very much remained the same.

"We've thrown a lot at this young man here, and the next step is leadership," Melvin said. "Now, he's quite the leader by example out there, but he has a unique quality in that he's one of the premier pitchers in the game, he's very well liked here and isn't afraid to be made fun of too, so it's not like he's out there being the enforcer in the clubhouse and saying , 'OK, I'm the leader here now.' That's not really his style. His style is just being more himself and keeping everyone loose and still being that guy you can kind of rib and joke with a little bit."