The second guessing was rampant, even before game 2 of the Division Series between the Oakland Athletics and the Detroit Tigers even took place. Before the Tigers stole game 1, and threatened to head back to Detroit with a 2-0 lead in the series. Bob Melvin had to be out of his mind to take a rookie starter, who had made all of 10 starts in the Show, and put him up against Justin Verlander. Sonny was David, and Verlander the ultimate Goliath.
A number of moments throughout the course of this instant classic showed just how tough Sonny Gray really is. The first instance came in the third innings when Gray uncorked a pitch up and in on right fielder Torii Hunter. Having been hit already in game 1, Hunter didn’t take too kindly to the brush-back pitch, especially coming from a 23 year old rookie. Hunter gestured towards Gray and the game became a bit more tense. Gray responded in emphatic form though, striking out Hunter with what Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris says was his fastest pitch of 2013. For good measure, he blew away Miguel Cabrera for the third out of the inning.
The top of the fifth inning was a huge turning point. After a leadoff walk to Omar Infante, and a 1 out infield single by Jose Iglesias, Gray was in some serious trouble. With runners at the corners, it appeared inevitable that the Tigers were going to break through and give Verlander perhaps the only run he would need. Austin Jackson came to the plate simply needing to put the ball in play to bring in the run in all likelihood, but he failed. Jackson flailed at a 94 MPH fastball from Gray, and catcher Stephen Vogt threw out Iglesias trying to advance to second on a presumed hit and run play. Just like that the threat was over, and Gray had all the confidence he would need to lead the A’s from that point on.
What made Gray’s start amazing wasn’t just his final line, which was rather beautiful, but the calm demeanor that enabled him to treat this game just like any other start. That isn’t to say he didn’t grasp the significance of the situation, but he’s a professional in every sense of the word and he knew that if he just pitched his game he would be successful. Gray acknowledged the crowd prior to the game as they cheered his emergence from the dugout to start his warmups, he winked at the camera as he walked off the mound, he was having fun. A pitcher who not only isn’t bothered by the big stage, but embraces it is a rare and valuable commodity. Gray is indeed a special player.
Gray’s development as a pitcher mirrors the mustache that has appeared on his upper lip. It’s fitting that someone as babyfaced as Gray would sport a little facial hair like that, at a time like this. Last night we all witnessed Gray undergo his MLB puberty, minus the acne. The adoring crowd at the O.co Coliseum, chanting “SONNY! SONNY! SONNY!” as he walked off the mound after his eighth scoreless inning, were like the proud father welcoming his son into manhood. He came into the game a boy, and he left the game a man.