SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The end of Sonny Gray's day arrived near the beginning of everyone else's, and then he flipped his glove to himself all the way across the outfield. Then he got to the fence and could not locate the door, like the day suddenly couldn't decide whether to keep him or let him go.
He was being limited to 45 or so pitches in his second spring start – his second, too, since Game 5 of the American League Division Series – and he used up all but 10 of them in a single inning. He arrived in the dugout, removed his cap and scratched his head. The catcher patted him with his mitt. He found a seat.
At the first opportunity, Gray made his move for the locker room, which is beyond the center-field wall, and his path took him along the general route of Martin Prado's two-run double. In all, in one inning, the only one he'd pitch, he'd given up five hits and four runs, the last when catcher John Jaso raced to back up first base on a grounder to shortstop. Nice hustle except there was one out and a runner at third base and the infield was in. Jaso patted his own chest when he realized he'd left a very important area unmanned, the sort of thing that can happen in March, and also the sort of thing that found Sonny Gray for all of his very long, very short day.
The truth is Gray would have to forget which arm he favors in order to lose his place in the Oakland A's rotation. So, rather than burn fastballs past hitters rousing from their winter's rust or yoyo curveballs through short innings, Gray has been test-driving his change-up in game conditions, throwing bunches of them, feeling them, trusting them, finding them when they're gone. Or not. It's not any fun getting kicked around in front of a crowd and ducking under line drives, but it's less fun when the lights go on and your third-best pitch is such a distant third as to render it unusable.
"Obviously," he said, "[Thursday] didn't go well."
It ended with him pawing at the outfield fence. He pulled. He pushed. On the mound, the pitcher neared the end of his warm-up. The hitter flipped away his donut. He banged. He shouted. The staffer beside him worked a different area of the fence altogether.
"I thought we were going to be standing out in center field during the game," Gray said.
Yeah, sometimes you own the day. Sometimes it sees your change-ups coming and then hides the way out.
"You're going to have some bumps in the road," Gray conceded. "Kind of like [Thursday]."
As he spoke, Gray appeared caught between doing what he needed to (locate fastballs, cure changeups) and stomaching a result that, for someone such as Gray, is essentially meaningless. But, he laughed at his issues in ballpark escape, and granted that spring training was created for trial and error(s), and continued to carry uncommon confidence for a young man, who, at 24, has amassed 12 career starts, including the two that stole the heart of Oakland. Those would be Games 2 and 5 of the past Division Series, where he stood across from Justin Verlander and was, generally, superb.
There were few better moments of the postseason than watching Gray spring from the dugout for the eighth inning of a scoreless Game 2, Oakland fans rising from their seats, their guy having outlasted the great Verlander, and Gray answering with yet another precise and forceful inning. The A's won with a run in the ninth inning, of course, which merely served to bring another Verlander-Gray matchup five days later, and this time Verlander was better.
Asked if those five days changed him, Gray smiled and said, "I don't think so."
He spent some time in the offseason working out in Nashville with some fellow Vanderbilt products, the likes of David Price and Mike Minor. He returned with the same big fastball, the same tight and angry curveball, and a desire to bring along a change-up that would keep the left-handed hitters off the other two. He also returned with an idea that this should be his time, if he worked and believed and worked some more. He threw 35 pitches Thursday, hit more than a few bat barrels, got unlucky in a spot or two, then practically had to go over the wall. Scouts saw a change-up that was too firm, too close to his fastball in velocity, and Gray's manager, Bob Melvin, saw location issues. In the end, they shrugged, because they love Gray's stuff, and his potential, and his stubbornness. And they love that the kid they saw on that mound in October who didn't stand even 6-feet tall and hardly looked 16 didn't pitch at all like a kid.
And that's all fine with Gray, who won't often be the underdog, not anymore.
"You want, as a competitor, you want to be the best," he said. "No matter what it is."
Some days will go that way, too. Some days won't, and then there'll be no way out.
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