Heading into the 2016 season, the A's looked for a competitive rebound headlined by Sonny Gray as the staff ace. Sporting a deep - albeit not star-studded - lineup and a rebuilt bullpen, the franchise hoped to see Gray - who placed 3rd in AL Cy Young voting in the A's otherwise lost 2015 season - be the lead starting pitcher in a rotation featuring mostly young arms and the lottery ticket Rich Hill.
Plain and simple, Sonny has not held up his end of the bargain and it has played a major role in the A's not being able to find consistent footing in this 2016 season.
Tonight's game represented the latest chapter in the 2016 disappointment, as Gray faced a Rays offense that has shown some good pop, but who came in to the game tied for last in the AL in runs scored. Coming off nice series wins over the Blue Jays and Astros, the A's looked for Gray to continue the momentum in the 3rd series after the All Star Break. But this would not be the case, as the A's stumbled to a 7-3 loss.
The Rays got to Gray early and often, plating all 7 runs on Gray (all earned) that came via 9 hits (including 2 HRs) in just 5 innings of work. The lone positive was that Gray struck out 6 and issued 0 walks. But this small silver lining did not make up for the fact that he was hit hard.
As has been the problem much of the year, Gray struggled to get batters to bite on his breaking balls and his fastball was not consistently precise or zippy enough to miss bats. Combine these two, and you had the Rays able to jump on their pitch for single runs in the 1st (on a Dickerson RBI single), 2nd (on a Beckham HR), and 4th (on a Dickerson HR), followed by the coup de gras 4 run 5th (RBIs by Forsythe, Miller, Longoria and Dickerson) that finished off both Gray and the rest of the scoring for the night. The 7 runs allowed bumped up Gray's ERA to an unsightly 5.49 mark.
This was the reaction of league trade observers:
Sonny Gray trade becoming doubtful. Incredibly difficult for #Athletics and suitors to properly value him with a 5.49 ERA.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) July 22, 2016
While the story of the night was Gray's lack of effectiveness, the A's bats could not pick up the slack. The A's scored all 3 of their runs in the 2nd inning on a Jake Smolinski 3 run jack off Rays starter Matt Moore. The HR plated Danny Valencia and Billy Butler, who both reached on singles. Moore otherwise breezed through the lineup over 7 strong innings, finishing with the 3 runs allowed (all earned) on just 4 hits, with 2 walks and 6 K's. 4 Rays relievers finished the final two innings with just one hit allowed, an additional base hit by Valencia, who had the only multi-hit night of the game for the A's batters. It seemed clear that Sonny's struggles took wind out of the sails of the team as a whole and, once the Smolinski HR lead was overcome, the A's had no fight left.
The one silver lining from the pitching side was another clean inning from Liam Hendriks, who has pitched much better since returning from a long DL stint with a strained tricep, and 3 crisp innings from newly-recalled rookie Zach Neal. Neal allowed just one hit over the three innings and did not walk a batter, while striking out two.
With the trade deadline bearing down on the team in less than two weeks (August 1st), it is certainly a period where Bob Melvin and the staff have an additional challenge in keeping the players fully locked in to the task at hand. It is totally uncertain what effects the pending deadline may have on player psyche, but nights like tonight certainly do not point to positives. The A's will look to rebound with some zest tomorrow night, as rookie Sean Manaea takes the hill, opposed by RHP Jake Odorizzi. Manaea's last outing was actually a quality 5 inning emergency relief appearance against a strong Blue Jays lineup, which resulted from resident 2016 staff ace (and high profile potential trade chip) Rich Hill leaving after just 5 pitches with a blister on his left middle finger.
Melvin announced today that Jesse Hahn will return to the A's and start in place of Hill on Sunday in the finale of the series with the Rays.
At this point, approximately two painful years removed from the 2014 mid-season dominance the A's had shown, the franchise and fan base are hoping for some serious spark to help restore consistent balance to their force. With Sonny Gray not currently being that reliable catalyst, another factor will need to take hold to get the organization out of the mojo funk. While the current times are tough, cheers to a coming awakening of our beloved Oakland A's.