Sonny Gray showcases skills, shuts down Indians

It took Sonny Gray a while to settle in. But when he did, he blew by Cleveland, carrying the Oakland Athletics to a 5-0 win Friday to open the second half.

Gray dazzled Cleveland (47-41), holding the American League’s fourth-most explosive offense scoreless over 6 two-hit innings. All coming after a 22-pitch first in which he issued his lone walk and split his balls and strikes 50-50.

After finding his groove, and coasting through the final three frames of his evening to out-duel Carlos Carrasco, Gray continued his recent run of dominance. He now boasts an anemic 1.33 ERA over his last four starts.

This story has been updated with quotes and post-game material from the A’s clubhouse at the Oakland Coliseum.

Gray (W, 5-4, 3.72 ERA), the A’s most valuable piece heading into the final two weeks before the trade deadline, lowered his season ERA by more than a quarter run — from 4.00 — in the game, while dropping his WHIP below 1.20. And he did so impressively, limiting balanced swings and solid contact. Twelve of his 18 outs were recorded either on strikeouts (five) or ground balls (seven).

Regarding his need to pitch around trade talks, Gray said his job is to focus on what he can control:

“At times it can be difficult. You just don’t know … it’s just one of those things that you have to deal with sometimes. Whatever happens is going to happen, it’s kinda out of my control.”

As far as the newly improved ability to coax groundballs when he’s not striking people out, he said:

“I’ve been throwing a lot of sinkers, trying to induce contact. … I’ve just been in a little bit more of attack mode.”

Only an error from the normally sure-handed Yonder Alonso at first costed him a chance at the seventh inning, forcing six additional throws from his right arm.

The A’s (40-50) have been engaged in trade talks with several teams, including the Houston Astros and New York Yankees, who have undoubtedly been impressed by Gray’s dominant surge.

Manager Bob Melvin has been impressed with the recent run by his ace, likening it to the type of pitching Gray did in his Cy Young-finalist campaign of 2015:

“He’s pitched really well. … His stuff has been there, and once he’s gotten a little bit on a role, as far as pitching deeper into games and being healthy, we’re seeing what we’re getting right right now and we’ve seen it a lot before.”

And both Gray and his team needed his latest performance. Not only was he facing a potent offense, he was matched up with All-Star snub Carrasco (L, 10-4, 3.65 ERA), who claimed victories in his last two outings of the first half and was coasting through the first two innings Friday.

Both offense broke the hit seal in the third, and each did it using speed.

Cleveland second baseman Erik Gonzalez recorded the first hit of the night, sending a chopper up the middle fielded by Marcus Semien to the left field side of the second base bag. The throw was a half-stride late, but Gray made it painless stranding a pair base runners by getting Michael Brantley out on a similar grounder, which was taken to the bag by his shortstop.

Speedster Rajai Davis, who was part of Cleveland’s pennant-winning club a season ago, was able to slither his own grounder past a lunging attempt from third baseman Jose Ramirez on the very first pitch of the bottom half. By the time Francisco Lindor got to it in the hole, a throw was unnecessary and unmade by the All-Star shortstop.

The difference between the two became Matt Joyce, who crushed the very next pitch into the right-center field gap chasing home Rajai with a double, then advancing to third on a throw to the plate, which arrived a touch late and up the first base line.

An accurate relay throw from Gonzalez may have gotten Rajai, who said he had taken notice of that rounding third:

“As soon as I picked my head up, I took a peak — quick peak — and seen the second baseman had the ball and they were about to throw it home. I was like, ‘uh-oh, it’s gonna be close.'”

The always jovial outfielder added:

“Especially after four days of no running, then a run — you gotta run.”

That 90-foot advancement on the back-end served the A’s and Joyce, who scampered home on a line-out to deep center by Semien two pitches later.

Rajai applied pressure to his former team again in the fifth, launching a towering solo home run (3) to left leading off the inning — he finished with the evening’s only multi-hit game, going 2-for-3. Alonso, fresh off an impressive showing at the All-Star game, matched the feat of his current teammate sending a drive over the 15 foot-high wall in left-center for a solo homer (21) of his own.

The A’s added one more in the seventh, when rookie Matt Chapman smoked a triple off the wall in left-center and scored on a passed ball. They didn’t need it, though, as Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle and Santiago Casilla did their best Gray impersonations, tossing three scoreless of their own.

Though it proved inconsequential, Rajai was in awe of Chapman’s speed, saying it reminded him of himself:

“I was pretty impressed. As far as reaction, the ball that got maybe a foot or two off the dirt and he scores from third. That’s like a move that I would do. … You don’t see that too often.”

Added Melvin:

“That’s what we’re trying to do — we’re starting to get a little more athletic.”

On deck

Paul Blackburn (1-0, 0.66 ERA) draws the second starting assignment of the second half. The rookie right-hander allowed one earned run over 13-2/3 innings in the first two starts of his career. He will be opposed by 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber (7-3, 2.80 ERA).

Notes

Pitcher Andrew Triggs underwent surgery on his left hip Thursday, and will miss the remainder of the season, according to the team. Triggs had been 5-6 with a 4.27 ERA in 12 starts after starting the season 5-2 with a 2.21 ERA in his first seven. The surgery was successful, the team said. … Catcher Ryan Lavarnway, who was designated for assignment on July 8, cleared waivers and accepted a minor league assignment with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds. He went 0-for-2 in one start with the A’s. … Gray is slated to get his next start on Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Rays.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s sports director and Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.