OAKLAND -- Prior to Friday night, A’s right-hander Sonny Gray had allowed neither a home run to lead off a game nor a grand slam in his two-plus major-league seasons. By the end of his outing against the Minnesota Twins, both distinctions had been erased.
The Twins scored all five of their runs in a 5-0 win over the A’s on two swings against Gray, who allowed two home runs in a start for just the second time in his career. After throwing a shutout in Cleveland in his final outing before the All-Star Break, Gray was admittedly not as sharp Friday night and received no support from an A’s offense that was shut out for the seventh time this season.
"It is a surprise when he gives up a homer," A’s manager Bob Melvin said of Gray, who entered the game allowing 0.36 homers per nine innings, the lowest mark in the A.L. "And really that’s what it came down to, was two pitches."
The first was a 2-2 fastball to Twins leadoff hitter Brian Dozier in the first inning that Dozier drove over the scoreboard in left-center for his fifth leadoff home run of the season. Catcher Stephen Vogt said the elevated fastball is ‘not a pitch Sonny makes a mistake with very often. But (Dozier) got it, and he’s one of the better hitters in the American League -- he doesn’t miss mistakes like that."
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Gray seemed to settle in during the middle innings, retiring 11 in a row at one point to maintain the one-run deficit into the sixth. But he said after the game he was aware in those middle innings that the movement his pitches was not as dramatic as usual, and that: "I was going to have to locate a little bit better tonight, because I just felt the stuff wasn’t that good."
Instead, in the sixth inning, the opposite happened. Gray walked Dozier to start the inning and Torii Hunter grounded a single into left field. Gray struck out Joe Mauer, but after he got ahead of cleanup hitter Miguel Sano, 0-2, he threw two low breaking balls on which Sano managed to check his swing. Gray then walked Sano to load the bases and bring up Plouffe.
"They made him work a little bit," Melvin said. "Whether it was fouling some balls off, a walk, and then just got a couple balls up. Usually when you make a guy throw that many pitches, tire him out a little bit, sometimes you make a mistake."
The mistake came in an 0-2 count to Plouffe. Gray hung a slider at 87 miles per hour, and Plouffe lofted it to left-center field, where it carried just above the scoreboard for the first grand slam Gray has allowed in the majors. He had only allowed a three-run homer once.
"I was just talking to (pitching coach Curt Young), I don’t think Sonny’s hung a slider like that in a couple years," Vogt said. "It was just two pitches and one of those things."
Gray ended up throwing 38 pitches in the inning after cruising through the previous three on 26 total. He credited the Twins hitters with "laying off a lot of pretty good pitches."
"I think my stuff just wasn’t that good," Gray said.
Vogt said he thought Gray made some good pitches in the sixth, but the Twins "laid off some good breaking balls and some good fastballs with some action out of the zone … They laid off the pitches that Sonny usually gets swings on." For that reason, Vogt was willing to attribute Gray’s line -- allowing five earned runs for just the second time this season -- more to the hitters Gray faced than any issues Gray was having.
"I don’t really chalk too much up to that (sixth) inning," Vogt said. "It was more credit to their hitters than Sonny being off."
* Vogt said that coming out of the four-day All-Star Break, it seemed at times like hitters on both teams were "a little behind the pitchers." The A’s, though, stayed unable to catch up.
Angels right-hander Ervin Santana scattered five singles over 7 2/3 innings. Three of them came in the third inning, when the A’s loaded the bases with two outs, but Ben Zobrist popped out in foul territory. They didn’t put another runner in scoring position until there were two outs in the eighth.
"He kept the ball down, good mix of pitches, threw some changeups and sliders like he normally does in off-counts," Melvin said of Santana. "I think it was more keeping the ball down and keeping it out of the middle of the plate."
Santana entered with good lifetime numbers against the A’s, but that was mostly against hitters who are no longer on the team. Of the current A’s lineup, Billy Butler had faced the Angels right-hander the most with the most success -- eight hits, including five home runs. But although the A’s -- including Butler -- hit a handful of hard line drives, they had no runs to show for it.
Vogt, who was actually facing Santana for the first time in the majors, said the Twins right-hander threw a deceptive mix of pitches while managing not to make mistakes in the strike zone.
"Every single pitch looks good to hit, every single pitch," Vogt said. "But he did a really good job of not giving in, staying away from the middle of the plate. His breaking ball, his changeup and his fastball look the same coming out. He was pretty sharp today."
Though he was facing a new iteration of the A’s lineup, Santana’s career numbers against Oakland remain impressive: In 27 starts, he’s 15-6 with a 2.03 ERA.
* Trailing 5-0 in the seventh gave Melvin a chance to bring reliever Dan Otero into a low pressure situation for Otero’s first appearance back from Triple-A. Otero, who spent the last six weeks in Nashville, allowed a pair of singles but struck out the side in his inning.
"It looked like backdoor sink (was) working a little bit, threw a curveball for a strikeout," Melvin said. "It’s always nice to have him here, because he can be a very productive guy for us."
Otero was one of the A’s more reliable relievers the past two seasons but had a 6.29 ERA at the time he was sent down. He struck out the first two hitters of the seventh, including Dozier on a curveball, and after allowing singles to Hunter and Mauer got Sano swinging on a 91 mph sinker.
* Running out of time to make a move in the A.L. race, the A’s likely did not envision starting the second half with a shutout loss at home. They fell to 18-27 at the Coliseum, something for which Melvin said he has no explanation. Only once during the Oakland era have the A’s finished with a winning percentage under .429 at home -- in 1979, when they went 31-50. Their current home winning percentage is .400.
They’ll try to improve it in the second game of the series Saturday evening behind left-hander Scott Kazmir (5-5, 2.49), who opposes Twins right-hander Phil Hughes (8-6, 4.32). First pitch at 6:05 p.m.