OAKLAND -- From outside the game was billed as a matchup of Cy Young contenders. But after catching Sonny Gray’s complete-game win over Dallas Keuchel and the Astros on Friday night, A’s catcher Josh Phegley made an acute observation about the 25-year-old right-hander.
"I don’t think it matters who he goes against," Phegley said of Gray. "I think he’s just out to prove he’s one of the best pitchers in the American League -- and he does it, time and time again."
The latest was Gray’s 107-pitch breakdown of the Astros in a 3-1 A’s win Friday -- his third complete game in his last six starts -- in which only a Luis Valbuena home run in the fifth came between Gray and his third shutout.
Gray lowered his season ERA to an A.L.-best 2.06 (clipping former teammate and now-Houston left-hander Scott Kazmir’s mark of 2.08) and, yes, outdueled Keuchel, the Astros left-hander who started the All-Star Game and came in tied for the league lead in wins (13) and with its third-lowest ERA.
"Pretty outstanding performance," manager Bob Melvin said. "We’ve seen him pitch that game here recently a couple of times, and to keep his pitch count under control is what’s important in finishing those games. It was a matchup where he probably has a little more adrenaline going, with who he’s facing."
Gray dispelled the latter idea, saying he tries to "block out" the opposing starter and focus on the hitters he’ll be facing. The Astros are a notoriously free-swinging team, leading the majors in homers but also second in strikeouts. Gray’s strategy was to go right after them.
"It’s the same every time, I feel like," Phegley said. "He uses his fastball. He challenges every hitter that gets in the box with his fastball. He’s got the utmost confidence in that pitch. He keeps them off-balance with his slider, (but) just pounded the strike zone and challenged every one of them."
Gray’s fastball, of course, is not an ordinary fastball. It comes in around the low to mid 90s on the radar gun, but darts and runs such that hitters have a difficult time squaring it up on the barrel of the bat. The Astros made contact Friday night, and they elevated the ball in the air, but the majority of those 14 fly-ball outs were not particularly well-hit.
"They were taking some pretty big swings and hitting the ball in the air," Gray said. "We were pretty fortunate with some of the balls that they did hit at our guys, and we made some good plays.
"I just challenged them a lot with my fastball. It wasn’t the best that it’s been, the slider wasn’t the best that it’s been. But like I said, just trying to make them put the ball in play as quick as possible and early in the count as possible."
The Astros’ aggressiveness worked against them in that, by making outs early in counts in the early innings, they allowed Gray to keep his pitch count relatively low even deep into the game. In the eighth inning, after allowing a one-out single to Jason Castro, Gray induced a 5-4-3 double play started by Danny Valencia and neatly turned by Brett Lawrie -- in just Lawrie’s third start at second base this season -- on Gray’s 98th pitch.
Melvin later said that play probably allowed Gray to return for the ninth inning. Had he thrown a few more pitches in the eighth and finished it over 100, Melvin said, "It just isn’t worth sending him out there again." As it was, Melvin checked with Gray before the ninth, just to make sure he was feeling OK.
"He asked," Gray said. "We had a little bit of conversation about it."
That was all it took. Gray retired the heart of the Astros’ lineup in order in the ninth, and secured his 12th win of the season. He improved to 27-1 in his career when he receives at least three runs of support. The A’s record for lowest ERA in a season in the designated hitter era is 2.33, set by Steve McCatty in 1981. At his current rate, Gray would shatter that mark.
As for the Cy Young race -- Gray was asked about it after the game and responded, "It’s a lot of season left, man. I don’t think that really matters." Valencia, the third baseman recently acquired by the A’s from Toronto, had an interesting observation after playing behind Gray for the first time. He said having spent most of his career on the East Coast, "You don’t really hear (about Gray) too much, or get to watch too many of the games.
"But man, he’s great. He attacks the strike zone, he’s got good stuff, he pitches quick. It’s easy playing defense behind him, because he’s always locked in and throws strikes. He’s amazing, he really is."
There’s a question of whether the A’s record this season might count against Gray when voters consider candidates at the end of the year. Keuchel, by contrast, has compiled his resume so far for a first-place team. But one could also argue Gray’s accomplishments are enhanced because he’s compiling them while pitching for a worse team. Phegley even acknowledged Friday that, "The stuff he’s managed to do, with our record and us losing a lot of games this year, has been tough."
Much can change in that regard over the next two months. Friday night, two of the best young pitchers in the American League went head-to-head at the Coliseum, and while the A’s clawed out a few runs against Keuchel, Gray refused to let the Astros do the same.
"Pretty much came as advertised, as far as the billing went and the pitching performances went," Melvin said. "But Sonny was just a little bit better tonight."