Midway through last season, it seemed like a longshot that Sonny Gray would be factoring into a major league post-season in 2013. After a July 2nd start versus the Springfield Cardinals, Gray found himself with a 5.11 ERA. When Gray was selected with the 18th overall pick in the 2011 draft by the A's, many predicted that the Vanderbilt alum would be challenging for a big-league spot by midway through the 2012 season. Few saw his struggles in Double-A coming.
Gray admitted that some of his early-season struggles with Double-A Midland had as much to do with adjusting to professional baseball and the rigors of throwing every fifth day as it did with the level of competition. Gray also dealt with several mechanical adjustments – specifically with the finish on his delivery – and he said those adjustments contributed to his up-and-down 2012 season. He found changes that he was comfortable with by the second half of last season, however, and that comfort level has carried over into the 2013 season.
"There were some things we were working on last year, learning pro ball, throwing every fifth day, just trying to get better as a pitcher," Gray said. "And sometimes, you know, it doesn't all work, but you have to take what you're learning and be able to adjust it into your game plan and your style of pitching, and last, we tried to fix some things mechanically and whatnot.
"And then going into the second half, we kind of adjusted it again and got back to maybe not take everything, but take some things that we were working on in the first half of last year, and really try to harness it for me. I think we found something that's been working."
The 2013 season has been much smoother sailing for Gray. He finished the 2012 campaign with the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats, making one regular season and one post-season start with the River Cats at the tail-end of the year. He was part of Sacramento's 2013 Opening Day rotation and quickly established himself as one of the top pitchers in the Pacific Coast League. Before the All-Star break, Gray posted a 2.99 ERA and he struck-out 107 while walking only 36 in 102.1 innings. Impressive numbers in a league like the PCL known for its offense.
Gray was named to the PCL All-Star team and he was set to start the Triple-A All-Star game when he received the call to the major leagues in early July. Gray began his MLB career as a reliever and was sent back to Sacramento after two dominating relief appearances. It wasn't long before the A's found a way to fit Gray into their starting rotation, however, and he joined Oakland for good in early August.
Gray had 10 starts for Oakland during the final two months of the season, and he was arguably the A's best pitcher during that stretch. He posted a 2.85 ERA and he struck-out 61 and walked 19 in 60 innings. Gray had a 1.13 WHIP and he allowed just four homeruns. He earned the trust of the A's coaching staff with his performance down-the-stretch, especially in the A's AL West division-clinching game.
Although the A's could have saved Gray for later in the Division Series, they didn't hesitate to tab him as the starter for Game Two.
"I think he will do well. We wouldn't have put him in that spot if we didn't think so," A's manager Bob Melvin said before Game One. "He's pitched some games here, in particular the game that we clinched the division. It's going to have a little bit of the same type of feel … But he's pitched in some big games, whether it's in the big leagues, whether it's at school, he's been in some high profile places and pitched in some high profile games. You insulate within your preparation and go out there and pitch whether you're an emotional guy or you're not, which he can be, and I think it actually helps him."
Although Gray is a groundball pitcher, he has still taken advantage of the spacious Coliseum. In six starts at home, Gray posted a 1.99 ERA. He had a 3.86 ERA in four road starts. Melvin said that the park wasn't really a factor in choosing to slot Gray second, however.
"Detroit is a pretty big park, dimensions out in the big part are even bigger than ours," Melvin said.
"But I wouldn't consider either of these parks smaller parks. So it was more about comfortability at home at the end of the day when we had to make the decision."
For his part, Gray knows the magnitude of the start ahead of him. Gray pointed to his final start with Vanderbilt in Omaha as the biggest of his career up until this point. He expects to have plenty of emotion on the mound, but he thinks it will work to his advantage.
"I'm sure tomorrow is going to be exciting and there will be adrenaline going and just to harness that and to use it to my advantage is probably going to be a key to the game," Gray said.
The Tigers' line-up is filled with veteran stars and at least one future Hall of Famer. Gray is focused more on pitching his game than worrying about who is in the batter's box.
"I think it's going to be not so much them, but me," Gray said. "Like I said, being able to harness the energy and the adrenaline that I'm sure is going to be flowing and not try to do too much. Not try to pitch to their weaknesses or just go with my strengths, go with what's got me here and what's got us here as a team.
"I think if I'm able to do that, then it will probably end up going more our way. And if not, then we'll see what happens. But I think just being able to harness everything and stay focused and not get into the whole, you know, 'This is the playoffs' and just kind of treat it like another game."
Gray will be making his first start versus Detroit, and Tigers' manager Jim Leyland acknowledged that that will present some unique challenges for the Tigers' hitters.
"The problem with Sonny Gray is that we don't know much about him, other than what we have seen on TV and it looks pretty darn good and what our scouts have told us and they've told us it's pretty darn good," Leyland said.
"A little anxious when you see somebody you haven't seen before. Really good stuff, really good competitor, hard with an excellent curveball. We'll just have to wait and see how it looks tomorrow night, live."