OAKLAND -- A’s right-hander Sonny Gray said he’d found out a few days before his start Friday night against the Giants that Stephen Vogt would be back behind the plate catching him, in Vogt’s first start at catcher since taking a foul ball to the groin area on September 6.
"I was like, ‘You’re just getting thrown right back into the fire, huh?’" Gray said with a grin. "‘Hope I don’t spike too many heaters!’"
Vogt made it through his return to catching Friday relatively unscathed, and the effect of his presence behind the plate could be felt throughout the A’s 5-4 win over the Giants at the O.co Coliseum. In front of a sell-out crowd, Gray matched a career-high with his 14th win, Sean Doolittle navigated an eventful final four outs for his second save of the season and the A’s snapped a five-game losing streak in the opener of this Bay Bridge series.
Vogt’s familiarity with and command of the pitching staff was missed during his absence -- more so when regular backup Josh Phegley was lost to a concussion. He and Gray have worked together since they were both in Triple-A in 2012. And that relationship showed in how quickly Gray was able to adjust after allowing a two-run, first-inning home run to Matt Duffy on Friday night.
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Gray said the homer, which came on a changeup to a right-handed hitter, "was probably just a bad pitch selection on my part." After that at-bat, he said, "I tried to just get on the mound, shake my head yes to whatever Vogt was calling and do what I’ve done all year long … That homer was kind of a wake-up call to go back and be yourself. Me and Vogt kind of talked about it."
That meant going back to throwing "curveballs and sliders and four-seamers," Gray said. He retired the next nine Giants batters after Duffy’s homer and did not allow another run before exiting after the sixth inning with some hip discomfort.
Gray had entered the game with a 7.97 ERA in four September starts, and indicated that having Vogt behind the plate again Friday helped settle him down after a rocky start.
"We’ve got such a good connection and everything," Gray said. "Like I said, after the homer it was a lot of just shaking my head yes and throwing the pitch.
"It was nice because obviously I’ve been struggling for a little bit, and he knows what I do well, he knows when I’m going well, what pitches I throw and stuff. So it was easy to go back to what we’ve done for the last two years and just throw it."
Vogt said given his layoff from catching, he was "a little flinchy on the first few swings. I don’t think that’s uncommon or not to be expected. But after that I felt pretty good. I felt more at home, I felt more like myself."
He looked comfortable making one of the game’s key defensive plays in the eighth. With two outs, the bases full of Giants and the A’s nursing a one-run lead, Doolittle induced a pop-up in foul territory from Mac Williamson, and Vogt sprinted to the backstop near the A’s dugout to make a difficult catch.
"He hasn’t been out there for a while and he’s got to go out there near the camera well, by the on-deck circle, with the way the ball has all that backspin," Doolittle said. "And because of where it was hit, he had to run the whole time. That’s a really, really tough play. That was huge for me."
Vogt said it was made a little easier by everyone in the A’s dugout yelling to him that he had room. The play defused the Giants’ threat, and Doolittle retired the side in the ninth, striking out the final two hitters, including Alejandro De Aza in an 11-pitch battle. In his 1 1/3 innings, Doolittle threw 38 pitches -- all fastballs.
"Following Vogt," Doolittle said. "Vogt could put down a six and I’d try to throw a sub-marine knuckleball or something. I trust him when I’m out there … I know how hard he works with his preparation. I’ve been feeling a lot more confident with my secondary stuff, but (relying on the fastball) was the game plan tonight and we stuck to it."
Vogt said he considered calling for an off-speed pitch from Doolittle. "But you have to look at the situation, you have to understand what kind of pitcher he is and what kind of hitters they are. You’re not going to get beat on your second- or third-base pitch in that situation. You’re going to get beat on your best pitch."
Melvin said before the game if Vogt came out of Friday’s game healthy, he would catch again Saturday, when Barry Zito is scheduled to start for the A’s against Tim Hudson. Vogt said after the game that he "feels great" -- and that even if he did wake up Saturday with some discomfort, it probably wouldn’t matter.
"It’s such an honor for me to even be playing in the game, let alone be the one catching for (Zito)," Vogt said. "It’s going to be a special day."
* Gray threw just 86 pitches in his six innings, and Melvin said Gray could have thrown more if not for the hip discomfort.
"I didn’t want to mess with that," Melvin said. "He’s had a lot of innings this year. He felt it once or twice during the game and after that (sixth) inning felt it again, and I just didn’t want to mess with that."
Gray said he first felt the hip in his last start against Houston, when he "threw a pitch and my hip kind of got a little bit tight." He said it remained a little sore, but he got through a bullpen session with "nothing crazy." Then he threw a pitch in the fifth inning Friday and felt it again.
"I kind of slipped a little bit, it kind of jarred up and got a little sore again," Gray said. "And in the sixth inning, those pitches were pressure pitches and I might’ve been amped and doing a little bit too much, but it kind of locked up a little bit."
Melvin said he was "not sure" if the hip issue could affect Gray’s availability for his next start against the Angels, which would be his last of the season. Gray said he would have a better idea when he sees how it feels Saturday. Overall, Melvin and Doolittle both said it was good to see Gray have a good start amid a difficult September, especially in front of a Coliseum sold out for just the fifth time this season.
"We’re looking to finish strong, he’s looking to finish strong," Doolittle said. "For him to come out in this environment and put up a start like that, it was great to see."
* Melvin said he was comfortable leaving Doolittle in for up to 40 pitches given the fact Doolittle hadn’t pitched since Sept. 17. The left-hander finished at 38, and Melvin said afterward he wasn’t sure whether he would’ve left Doolittle in to face Duffy had he not struck out Kelby Tomlinson to end the game.
"But he was eager to get back out there (for the ninth) after giving up a run and put it away," Melvin said. "Good thing he did pretty quickly."
* Ryan Dull no longer has a 0.00 ERA in the majors. The A’s reliever allowed his first two big-league runs Friday, the first coming on a mammoth home run to center field by the Giants’ Jarrett Parker that landed in the seats above the suite level. ESPN estimated the blast at 474 feet, the second-longest at the Coliseum since 2009.
"Now he’s official," Melvin said of Dull, who hadn’t allowed a run in his first 11 innings. "You start going that long without giving up a run, it takes on a life of its own. I told him after the game, ‘Hey look, now you’ve given up your run, now you can just go about your business and not have to worry about that."
Before the game, Melvin was asked about Dull not having pitched for a while and said it was a product -- like Doolittle’s layoff -- of the A’s not having many late leads recently. That’s a strong indication of how quickly Dull has risen in the ranks of the A’s bullpen.
* Billy Burns went 2-for-4, hitting his fifth home run of the season and recording his 45th multi-hit game. That ties him with Mark McGwire for the second-most multi-hit games in a season by an Oakland A’s rookie; Terrence Long and Brent Gates share the record with 49. It also leads all major-league rookies this season, even more impressive given Burns started the year at Triple-A and didn’t play his first game with the A’s until May 1.
Burns might not win Rookie of the Year, but Melvin argued he deserves to at least be in the conversation. "He’s been terrific for us," Melvin said. "He’s been consistent, he’s been durable, all of the above. Whoever he’s in conversations with right now, he deserves to be."
* Saturday, the Zito-Hudson pitching matchup finally arrives. If the A’s need a little extra motivation, they could help knock the Giants out of the postseason picture with a win and the Dodgers beating the Rockies. Friday’s result eliminated the Giants from the wild-card race, sealing a trip to the postseason for the Chicago Cubs.
First pitch at the Coliseum on Saturday is at 1:05 p.m.