It's amazing watching the growth of a young pitcher. Not since the "Big 3" have A's fans had a chance to watch a true ace take the hill every five days for the home team. We saw this spark in Game 2 of the 2013 ALDS, when Sonny Gray went toe-to-toe with Justin Verlander and the A's pulled it out in walk-off fashion. We knew we had something good here.
However, as baseball fans, we're trained to know that nothing is certain with a young pitcher. We were of course optimistic going into this season. We weren't worried about Gray, but we wondered if being the Opening Day starter would put a lot on his young shoulders. Well, it turns out the Ox can carry a load.
Tonight Gray twirled an absolute gem on national television. In doing so, he achieved his first complete game shutout in professional baseball (not counting a 7-inning shutout in AA), allowing just five baserunners and three hits in all. This was just the tenth complete game shutout in Arlington with three hits or less (without looking it up I'm assuming Nolan Ryan had the other 9, which means that Gray is going to be as good as the Express).
He knew he needed to play the role of stopper after two weak losses to Houston, he knew the A's needed to take one from the Rangers after getting swept by their rivals in Oakland, and he knew he was capable of delivering.
The A's bats also did their part against Yu Darvish, chasing him from the game with four runs in just 3⅓ innings with their patience and special brand of kryptonite. Seriously the A's own this guy. Despite his pregame statements indicating confidence in his game plan, he never looked comfortable. He walked Eric Sogard twice, and the second walk (on four pitches) was the final straw for Ron Washington. It was a rare sight watching Wash take a slow walk and ask for the ball without discussion from Darvish. This was the shortest outing of his career, but the A's worked him for 83 pitches (just 45 strikes) in that time. The Texas fans were noticeably perturbed.
If there was one ugly spot in this win, it was the A's giving up three outs on the basepaths tonight, continuing a disturbing trend. In the second inning, after the A's had already scored two runs courtesy of a Josh Donaldson bases-loaded single, Brandon Moss got picked off of first with the bases loaded and just one out. A wild pitch saw the ball skip away from Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos; Jed Lowrie feinted towards home from third base, but he had no chance to make it. The feint didn't work as Chirinos did not throw to third base and instead threw to Prince Fielder at first to nab Moss. There was no chance to advance and no excuse for getting caught there.
The other two baserunning mistakes were at least errors of aggression, and took superlative throws to get the outs. Eric Sogard later was caught trying steal second (on a perfect throw by Chorinos) and Josh Reddick got doubled off of first when Leonys Martin made a great play to run down a smash by Barton and launched to first. Still, it is disturbing to continue to give away multiple outs per game on the bases.
That being said, this was an overwhelmingly positive game. John Jaso consistently made solid contact, Josh Reddick continued his torrid stretch, going 3-4 with an RBI triple, and Donaldson continued to be the middle-of-the-order run producer that the A's need him to be.
But it all comes back to Sonny. To watch him turn in this performance against the Astros would be exceptional; to do it against the division rival, head to head against their all-star stud pitcher? The sky's the limit. Do the A's finally have the pitcher that everyone else fears? That mystical "ace" that eludes definition and bats alike? The one who can go head to head and beat the best? For anyone who watched this game, it'd be hard to reach any other conclusion.
Tomorrow's matchup pits Scott Kazmir against Martin Perez, another ace in the making who pulled off his own complete game shutout last week in Oakland. Getcha popcorn ready.