PEORIA -- Sonny Gray last season was the kind of pitcher to respond to an occasion (his ALDS duels with Justin Verlander the most obvious examples). It’s a little different when the occasion is a spring training start in which he’s working more on developing pitches than getting outs, as was the case in his last outing March 6 against the Diamondbacks.
Gray allowed four runs on five hits in an inning in that start. He also didn’t throw either his sinker or curveball, while trying to bring along a changeup as another offspeed option. Tuesday, in his subsequent start against the San Diego Padres, Gray said he threw all his pitches and treated the outing more like a regular-season game. The result: four innings, no runs, one hit and two strikeouts.
"It was a completely different mindset," Gray said. "And that’s really big for me, if I’m on the mound thinking, ‘Let’s go after this guy, let’s get this guy,’ rather than working on stuff and feeling my way around the mound."
Another factor: Last week against Arizona was Gray’s first time throwing to catcher John Jaso -- ever. Gray said he didn’t throw to Jaso at all in spring training last year, and Jaso was out with a concussion when Gray arrived in Oakland in the second half of the season.
Tuesday, Gray said, "We were really on the same page, which was awesome. He did a great job trying to learn my strengths and my weaknesses."
Throwing the curveball and sinker, Gray said, allowed him to get a lot of early contact -- one reason he was able to complete four innings on 45 pitches. Most of his outs came on the ground, another good sign.
"Really good," manager Bob Melvin said. "He’s a guy that grinds on everything and today was pretty serious down in the bullpen, which you like to see, too. He had everything working today."
Gray is one of the three pitchers Melvin has referred to opaquely as candidates to start for the A’s on Opening Day. Right-hander Jarrod Parker is thought to be the frontrunner (and left-hander Scott Kazmir the other option), but the A’s already showed in the playoffs last season they aren’t afraid to throw Gray into high-profile situations, giving him the Game 5 ALDS start over veteran Bartolo Colon.
The 24-year-old Gray, meanwhile, seems to thrive in those situations. Asked today what an Opening Day start would mean to him, though, he shrugged at the possibility.
"I don’t know," Gray said. "It would be cool, but it would be -- there’s a lot of starters on the staff that are very competitive and very good. So we’ll find that out sometime down the road."
* A semi-familiar face was back with the A’s on Tuesday as Hiro Nakajima joined the travel roster for their 6-5 loss to the Padres. Nakajima has been in minor-league camp this spring, but with top shortstop prospect Addison Russell expected to miss a week after straining his right hamstring Monday, Melvin said Nakajima could get into some games with the A’s over the next seven days.
Nakajima, of course, arrived with some fanfare when the A’s signed him out of Japan at the end of the 2012 season, giving him a two-year, $6.5 million deal ostensibly to be their starting shortstop. But after battling injury and showing some defensive shortcomings last spring, he spent the first month of the season on the disabled list with a hamstring issue and the rest of it at Triple-A Sacramento.
Nakajima was not even invited to big-league camp this spring, and Melvin acknowledged it will likely take some infield injuries for Nakajima to be called up this season. Still, this gives Melvin and the major-league staff a chance to evaluate Nakajima after a year in the organization. It’s still unclear where the 31-year-old is best suited defensively -- he was a shortstop in Japan, but played second and third base mostly last year in Sacramento.
"Everything that I heard, he was terrific," Melvin said. "For him to come back and just be a minor leaguer this year, it’s pretty impressive he wants to do that. I’m sure he could’ve gone back to Japan and played, but he wants to prove himself here again. It’s nice that we are able to bring him over."
Nakajima entered Tuesday’s game in the seventh inning at shortstop and played the final three innings, though he didn’t get an at-bat. He had an eventful seventh in the field that included a close play on a steal at second base -- Nakajima took the throw that appeared to beat the runner and applied a tag, but the umpire ruled safe -- and a line drive to his left that popped in and out of his glove and was ruled a hit.
Melvin said he wasn’t sure whether Nakajima may have missed the tag on the steal, but that it was good to get Nakajima into a game and that he intends to get the infielder some at-bats this week.
In 90 Triple-A games last year, Nakajima batted .283 with four home runs and 34 RBIs. He said Tuesday morning his season in Sacramento was a valuable experience and that he "learned a lot about American baseball."
"I got used to everything, not only on the field, but off the field," Nakajima said through an interpreter. "I’m getting used to a lot of stuff here."
Nakajima also echoed Melvin’s comment about remaining in the U.S. rather than going back to Japan, where Nakajima was a highly regarded player, saying: "I want to stay here and play baseball."
Russell is not expected to make the 25-man roster out of camp but is getting a long look from the A’s, appearing in 12 games and going 7-for-25 so far.
* Melvin said this morning that first baseman Daric Barton (hamstring) is several days away from playing in games again. Catcher Derek Norris (back) could be in the lineup today after being out since Friday.
Outfielder Craig Gentry (back), who has yet to make his spring debut, ran and hit off a tee Monday, but still does not have a target date for getting into a game, Melvin said.
* Reliever Eric O’Flaherty took a significant step in his return from Tommy John surgery Tuesday, throwing his first bullpen session at the A’s facility in Phoenix. Melvin said O’Flaherty threw 18 pitches from a full mound-to-plate distance and "was pretty happy."
The A’s are still targeting midseason for O’Flaherty being available to join the bullpen.
Set-up man Ryan Cook (shoulder) also threw a bullpen and "threw the ball really well again," Melvin said. Cook has not pitched in a game yet but has said he intends to be ready for Opening Day.
* Coco Crisp, who came in with one single in 13 Cactus League at-bats, doubled in his first two at-bats off Padres right-hander Ian Kennedy.
The first double started a three-run first inning for the A’s, as Jaso followed with a double and Jed Lowrie hit his first home run of the spring.