A’s right-hander Sonny Gray experienced three firsts in his start against the Los Angeles Angels on Friday night, and the first two weren’t good. He allowed two home runs in an outing for the first time as a major leaguer. Odder still, both home runs came on curveballs – a pitch that, according to Brooks Baseball, Gray had never surrendered a homer on while in the majors.
But those homers, solo shots by Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton, were all Gray allowed until the ninth inning, which he reached for just the second time this season. And in his fifth start of August, Gray earned his first win of the month, as the A’s beat the Angels 5-3 in the opener of a significant late-August series against their American League West rivals.
With the win, the A’s could wrest first place in the division from Los Angeles this weekend. The Angels hold a one-game lead over the A’s, even though the Angels have won eight of their last 10 games and the A’s have lost seven of theirs.
“That was a huge game for us,” said A’s closer Sean Doolittle. “Sonny did what he always does – he stayed poised, and he pitched one of his best ballgames of the year for sure. It’s a big win for us. (But) we have to remember that it still counts as one.”
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That the A’s could endure their recent stretch and still trail Los Angeles by such a slim margin for the majors’ best record reflects the work they did before August, in which Gray, the A.L. Pitcher of the Month in July, was a big factor. In his first four starts this month, though, Gray went 0-4 with a 4.94 ERA.
A’s manager Bob Melvin said Friday afternoon that for Gray to escape that rut, he would benefit from “getting off to a good start” against the Angels. Two batters in, Trout golfed Gray’s 1-1 curveball over the wall in left-center to give the Angels a 1-0 lead. In the fourth, A’s catcher Derek Norris set up for a 1-2 backdoor curve to Hamilton, but Gray’s pitch came back over the plate, and Hamilton hit it into the seats in right-center.
According to Brooks Baseball, before Friday’s game Gray had thrown his curveball more than 1,000 times since arriving in the majors, finishing 125 strikeouts with it and allowing just 47 hits for a .160 opponents’ average.
Both homers gave the Angels a one-run lead – but neither lasted long. Coco Crisp led off the bottom of the first for the A’s by hitting Angels left-hander Hector Santiago’s fourth pitch to nearly the same spot as Trout’s shot. It was the 13th time Crisp has led off a game with a homer for the A’s, tying him for third on the franchise list.
“That was huge,” Melvin said. “That’s like, ‘All right, we’re fine.’ ”
“It’s a lot different pitching in a tie game than pitching in a deficit,” Gray agreed. “So it was really big for us to respond right there.”
Crisp also hit a one-out double in the fifth and scored on a would-be doubleplay that the Angels couldn’t turn to get out of the inning. Before the game, the A’s activated Craig Gentry from the disabled list, wanting to have Gentry’s right-handed bat in the lineup to face Santiago. Another reason was Gentry’s speed, and he showed why in the fifth.
With one out and men on first and second, Josh Donaldson hit a sharp grounder that had the makings of a double play. But with Gentry bearing down on him, second baseman Erick Aybar made a low relay to first that skipped past Albert Pujols and into the Angels’ dugout, allowing Crisp to score for a 2-2 tie.
The A’s went ahead in the sixth against reliever Jason Grilli as Alberto Callaspo singled, Sam Fuld scored Callaspo with a triple to right-center, and Andy Parrino lofted a fly ball to left just deep enough for the speedy Fuld to score ahead of a weak throw by Hamilton. Stephen Vogt tacked on an insurance run with a solo homer in the eighth.
With Doolittle warming up, Gray jogged to the mound to begin the ninth with chants of “Sonny!” emanating from the Coliseum crowd. He retired Pujols on a liner to Parrino but walked Hamilton, ending his bid for a second career complete game.
Doolittle entered and struck out Howie Kendrick, but allowed back-to-back singles by Aybar and David Freese and walked Collin Cowgill to put the potential tying run on second base. The Angels sent up Chris Iannetta to pinch hit, and with the count at 2-2, Doolittle threw a 95 mile per hour fastball past Ianetta to secure the win.
“That right there is an example of why they’ve been so successful lately,” Doolittle said of the Angels’ at-bats in the ninth. “They’re not all going to be pretty, but that was a really important win to be able to nail down.”