The Oakland Athletics have spent much of the 2017 season living and dying by the home run.
Wednesday was a completely different story for the A’s (43-52), who gnawed the Tampa Bay Rays (51-45) bite by modest bite, letting a single homer serve as insurance in a 7-2 gorging.
After stringing together just six hits combined in their first two games of the series, the Oakland offense enjoyed a breakout hammering out 11 hits in support of Sonny Gray, who may have been making his final start as an Athletic in the East Bay. The former All-Star worked around two errors and two walks, limiting the damage of seven hits and two runs before departing to a hearty ovation with one out in the seventh.
Of the love showered upon him, Gray (W, 6-4, 3.66 ERA) said it took him back to the A’s postseason run of 2013:
“It was nice. I’ve had a lot of times coming off the mound getting some nice ovations — some cheers. It took me back to 2013, in those two playoff games, it was really nice. Whether it is or it’s not (my last start as an Athletic), it’s not up to me, but it brought back a lot of memories.”
Since emerging among the top trade targets in the pitcher’s pool, Gray has reverted to his Cy Young-type form. Including his effort Wednesday, the 27-year-old has gotten through the sixth in five consecutive starts, now allowing six earned runs over 33-1/3 innings (1.62 ERA). In that time his season ERA has plummeted more than a full run from 4.84.
According to manager Bob Melvin, who said this version is the best Gray has offered since 2015, the re-emergence is predicated on an improved comfort level, and with an feel for his stuff during a given start:
“When he’s at his best he’s got a really good feel for what’s working on a particular day. … He’s got that feel back again.”
Gray kept the Rays guessing through his first three, wiggling out of jams in the first and second before a perfect third. Tampa did finally get to him in the fourth, capitalizing on the most meager of beginnings.
Cultivating a rally from of a chopper fielded by the Oakland starter behind the mound, Tampa Bay put together a rally. But with back-to-back grounders, the first for a fielder’s choice RBI and the second an inning-ending double play, Gray limited the damage to two runs in an attack that featured three consecutive hits with no outs.
“To get out of it with just the two, and be able to settle back in and put up some zeroes, was big.”
He finished his 60th career start at the Oakland Coliseum striking out six. While he continues to demand attention from scouts, he has been thrilled with his personal improvements, saying nothing has been better than his renewed ability to keep batters off-balance:
“For me, there’s not really a better feeling than a hitter going back to the dugout and not really having a clue you’re throwing, or what they just missed., … Being unpredictable is something that I’ve always used to my advantage.”
The impact of his own rally was supplanted by one from his offense, which had been muzzled by the Rays pitching staff.
Jacob Faria was tasked with continuing the dominance of the Tampa mound work and he did so admirably through four, surrendering three hits. But, the starter who had walked 11 in 45 innings coming into the game had issued two free passes in the first four as well. And the issues compounded in the fifth when Faria (L, 4-1, 2.52 ERA) walked two of the first three he faced.
The second walk came on four pitches, and forced a mound visit from pitching coach Jim Hickey.
A savvy veteran, Rajai Davis got aggressive jumping on the rookie’s very next pitch, lofting a fly ball down the right field line. As the ball came down like a football punt angled toward the corner near the goal line, the bounce drew chalk along with the dirt of the warning track and bounded over the wall and out of play for an RBI ground-rule double.
Though it scored only one and left his team trailing 2-1, Melvin called the at-bat the turning point of the game:
“We got some big hits during the course of the game — I don’t know that any was bigger, because we’re getting shutout to that point. You don’t come into the ballpark today with the greatest of moods, with the quick turnover. It wasn’t a good feel, as far as where we were going at that point. Now, all of a sudden that double happens, and right after that it got contagious.”
And it got contagious real quick. Matt Joyce tied things up on the very next pitch with a sacrifice fly to center field. Suddenly rattled, Faria gave Rajai home with a wild pitch, then allowed back-to-back singles to Marcus Semien and Yonder Alonso, wedging another wild pitch between leading to another run.
All told, the A’s did more to Faria than seven teams had done in his previous starts saddling the rookie with his first “non-quality start” and hanging a four-spot on the 23-year-old.
The bullpen was summoned in the sixth and Oakland continued to feast, tallying single runs in each of the their last three trips to the plate, including a solo homer (12) from Joyce in the eighth.
The win, Melvin said, was big for his team’s morale heading into a seven-game road trip:
“We’ve had a little trouble with sweeping a team, then getting swept. After a big series against Cleveland, getting swept would not have been a good feeling, Plus, with an off-day, that can sit with you for awhile.”
The A’s hit the road for the first time in the second half. After a day off, the trip begins with a three-game, weekend set in New York against the Mets (41-50). Rookie Paul Blackburn (1-0, 1.83 ERA) gets the starting assignment in the first of the seven-game roadie.
Chad Pinder (left hamstring) got the start at designated hitter for Triple-A Nashville Tuesday night, going 1-for-5 with three strikeouts in his first playing time since June 23. Manager Bob Melvin said the timetable for Pinder’s return is uncertain, but added that it is possible he returns during the upcoming road trip. Melvin also said Pinder could see some time at center field upon his return. … Kendall Graveman, Jharel Cotton and Chris Bassitt each made rehab appearances for Triple-A Nashville Wednesday. Cotton is likely to return during the coming road trip while Graveman and Bassitt each will continue their rehab assignments.