Even without the errors, even without the inconsistent pitching, even without the Athletics’ timely hitting, the Angels faced a tall order in their bid for a fourth straight win, one they failed to measure up to in an 8-1 rout.
Well, not literally tall. At 5-11, Sonny Gray is hardly an imposing figure. But he is arguably the best pitcher in baseball at the moment, and he made a strong case for that title at Angel Stadium on Sunday.
Gray lasted 7 2/3 innings, surrendering just one unearned run and five hits while striking out nine and walking none. Against the reigning MVP Mike Trout, Gray was at his sharpest, striking him out once and inducing two fly balls.
“You can’t sit on any of his pitches,” Trout said. “He’s got a fastball that cuts and fastball that sinks, and he kept us off balance the whole day.”
Gray now sits atop the majors in ERA, with a 1.60 mark, and is also top 10 in wins, innings pitched, opponents’ batting average and walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP).
“As good as he is, he continues to get better,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. “His stuff is great, his competitiveness is one of a kind.”
Gray has now posted four straight quality starts and fourth game with nine or more strikeouts. But stats like that don’t matter too much to him, he said.
“It was just nice to come here and salvage one game at least,” Gray said about his performance. “I just felt like I threw a lot of strikes. … It was effective, that’s all I really care about.”
Against the Angels, Gray has been particularly dominant this season, winning all three of his starts. In total, he has given up four runs and 13 hits and struck out 22 batters, going at least seven innings each time.
“I’m under the impression that he’s been doing that to everybody,” Angels catcher Chris Iannetta said. “He’s a really good pitcher, one of the best in the game. I don’t think he gets enough notoriety for how good he really is. He throws a 95-mph fastball that cuts and sinks. He’s got a great curveball that’s really hard. He’s got a slider he can throw for strikes.”
At 25 years old, Gray is in just his second full season in the majors and developing quickly. Last year, he collected a 14-10 record to go with a 3.08 ERA and 183 strikeouts. Towards the end of the 2013 season, he came up for the end of the year and got off to a torrid start, with a 2.67 ERA and a strikeout per nine inning rate of 9.4.
“The scary thing about it is how good he was over the past couple years, and now he’s starting to learn how to pitch and how to command the zone and set guys up,” Iannetta said. “So he’s just going to continue to get better.”
Gray credited the next step in his growth to his ability to hit his spots with his fastball, and Melvin agreed, saying Gray now has better control and throws strikes on a more consistent basis.
That efficiency and accuracy were on display Sunday, as Gray needed just 100 pitches, 65 of which were strikes, to make it into the eighth and strike out the first two batters that inning. But when pinch hitter Matt Joyce connected for a line drive single, Melvin made the decision to pull his starter and keep him fresh for his next start, which will probably be Friday against the Angels again.
When Melvin reached the mound, however, Gray was so locked in the zone he didn’t realize his day was finished.
“He doesn’t understand anything when you talk to him out there,” Melvin said. “So I said, ‘I’m going to save you some pitches, all right?’ And he goes, ‘Oh yeah, yeah.’ And I pointed to the bullpen, and he said, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
It was about the only mistake Gray made all game.