OAKLAND -– Sonny Gray didn’t feel his best, but he was pitching Wednesday in the type of game that brings out his best.
The A’s needed a victory in a bad way, and the fact it was just game No. 3 on the schedule didn’t diminish that. Their ace was there to answer the call.
Hardly full strength after battling the stomach flu, Gray dug deep and led Oakland to a 2-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox that allowed everyone in the home clubhouse to let out a collective exhale.
“Especially when we've lost a couple of tough ones, I think he even gets more inspired about being the guy to go out there and get deep in the game and give us a chance to win,” manager Bob Melvin said.
Gray held Chicago to three hits over seven innings, walking four but finding a way to get outs on a night when he knew early he didn’t have his best fastball. He leaned on his off-speed more and his natural movement. “He’s a damn good pitcher,” Sox catcher Alex Avila said. “I asked him, ‘How are you feeling?’, and he said, ‘Not too good.’ It didn’t seem that way.”
Gray registered a strong first impression with first-year teammate Ryan Madson, who compared Gray to one of his old Philadelphia Phillies teammates.
“He’s so polished, it’s crazy,” Madson said. “He reminds me kind of a right-handed Cliff Lee, where he’s just pounding the strike zone, real aggressive in the strike zone the whole game. And that’s tough to do as a starter.”
While Gray’s excellence often can be taken for granted, what made this an important win for the A’s (1-2) was what those around him did. The defense was solid, particularly shortstop Marcus Semien.
“That might be as good a game as we've seen him play,” Melvin said.
The A’s got just enough offense in the first two innings. Jed Lowrie delivered a sacrifice fly in the first – he’s driven in five of Oakland’s nine runs this season – and Mark Canha went the opposite way with a second-inning homer to right.
“It was a huge win for us,” Canha said. “Not only to win the game but win it in the fashion we won, a close game with the bullpen dealing like they did.”
John Axford handled the eighth, and with closer Sean Doolittle unavailable after pitching on back-to-back nights to start the series, Melvin went with Madson in the ninth. He allowed a leadoff single but closed it out, ending with a strikeout of Avila on a 3-2 changeup.
Madson gives Melvin a nice “Plan B” for the ninth when it’s needed, but Madson –- who saved 32 games for the Phillies in 2011 –- said roles aren’t something he and his bullpen mates are too concerned about.
“Any of the seven guys can pitch at any time,” he said. “That’s everybody’s motto, with Doolittle at the end. He’s our anchor.”
And there’s no doubt who the anchor of the rotation is. The A’s obviously take the field with confidence anytime they’re backing Gray, who is 8-1 with a 1.95 ERA in April for his career.
“If we wanna be as good as we think we can be,” he said, “we need to start winning these types of games. Tonight was a step in that direction.”