When manager Bob Melvin made it official this spring that Sonny Gray would start the A’s season opener, Melvin cited the fact that Gray “loves the spotlight games. If anyone was made for it, it’s him.”
Monday night, the glitz of Opening Night brought the best out of Gray.
The A’s 25-year-old ace held the Texas Rangers hitless until the eighth inning of a 8-0 win at the Coliseum, helping the A’s snap a streak of 10 consecutive losses to open the season. Gray came within six outs of throwing the second Opening Day no-hitter in major-league history before Texas’ Ryan Rua singled to right field leading off the eighth.
An announced sellout crowd of 36,067 applauded Gray and chanted “Son-ny!” as Rua rounded first base. Gray finished the inning with help from first baseman Ike Davis, who snagged a Mitch Moreland line drive and stepped on first to double off Rua, then made a diving play on Rougned Odor’s grounder to end the inning.
The A’s last win in a season opener had come April 5, 2004, and they’d scored a total of six runs in their past six openers combined. Their new-look lineup eclipsed that total on Monday night with an 11-hit blitz. New No. 3 hitter Ben Zobrist hit a two-run homer off Rangers starter Yovani Gallardo in his first A’s at-bat, and catcher Stephen Vogt added a towering three-run homer to right off reliever Phil Klein in the seventh inning.
The spotlight, though, belonged to Gray.
While the A’s introduced their revamped roster (including 12 players who did not appear in a game for them last season) and two new high-definition scoreboards at the Coliseum, Gray also unveiled a new look: high, green-and-yellow striped socks. But pitching-wise, he picked up where he left off last year, when in his final start he hurled a complete-game shutout in Texas to give the A’s a wild-card berth.
Gray allowed his first runner when he clipped Odor with a pitch with two outs in the third inning. With two outs in the sixth, Zobrist – playing left field because of injuries to Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick – dropped a Leonys Martin fly ball that allowed Martin to reach second base. Zobrist was given an error, keeping the no-hit bid intact.
Prince Fielder scorched a liner to right leading off the seventh inning that Craig Gentry hardly had to move to catch. Adrian Beltre then hit a sharp grounder that second baseman Eric Sogard gloved sliding to his left for a routine putout. Gray threw a 93-mph fastball past Shin-Soo Choo for the third out, bringing the crowd to its feet.
After Vogt’s homer made the game a blowout, Gray got two strikes on Rua to start the eighth inning before the Rangers’ left fielder hit a sharp grounder through the right side of the infield. Gray still became the first A’s starter to win a season opener since Tim Hudson beat the Seattle Mariners in 2003, striking out three and throwing 98 pitches in his eight innings. Evan Scribner finished the game with a scoreless ninth.
The first A’s pitcher to start consecutive season openers since Barry Zito in 2005-06, Gray was also one of only two returning starters from last year’s Opening Night lineup (Sogard was the other), matching the fewest year-to-year in Oakland history.
The last time the A’s overhauled their roster like this was before the 2012 season, during which the A’s made a surprising run to the American League West title, and Melvin said he sees “a lot of similarities” with this year’s team. Asked specifically about the team’s talent level, Melvin said: “I don’t want to say better, but there’s some players that look to be really good.”
“I think (general manager Billy Beane) has done a great job of bringing in another group here that maybe even has a little higher expectation than what we saw in 2012,” Melvin said. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but there are a lot of similarities, and there is a lot of talent running around the field.”
A look at predictions of national baseball outlets would suggest few share Melvin’s optimism. The A’s are widely viewed as underdogs in the West behind the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Angels – a not unfamiliar role for teams in Oakland.
“I feel like it is a good situation for us,” Vogt said.