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August 15, 2013
A good day for rookies as Gray, Freiman lead A's to 5-0 win

OAKLAND -- No doubt some of the fans who were on their feet at the Coliseum with two outs in the top of the eighth inning Thursday have followed Sonny Gray's progress through the minors since the A's made him the 18th overall pick in the 2011 draft, waiting for the day of his debut in Oakland.

The debut came Thursday, a little more than two years after the A's drafted Gray out of Vanderbilt and after three previous major-league appearances -- two in relief and all on the road. And Gray, the baby-faced 23-year-old right-hander, didn't disappoint, earning his first major-league win with eight shutout innings against the Houston Astros in the A's 5-0 win.

"I think it sunk in kind of right now," Gray said standing in front of his locker, where the A's lineup card and a box of game baseballs sat for posterity. "This is a great feeling.

"I'm glad we could come away with a win after losing the last two nights -- I feel like that was big, and hopefully we can go on a roll now. It is nice to get the first win."

It probably wouldn't be accurate to say the hype for Gray's home debut was palpable from first pitch -- the Coliseum was about half full, with an announced crowd of 16,487 turning out on a sunny Thursday afternoon. But by the end of his outing, much of the crowd sounded invested in each pitch as Gray tried to close out the eighth with a runner on second and his pitch count rising.

After Jonathan Villar doubled with one out in the inning, Gray won a long at-bat with Robbie Grossman by freezing the Astros leadoff hitter on a full-count curveball for his ninth strikeout, then fielded Brett Wallace's comebacker himself and flipped it to Nate Freiman at first base to end the inning.

"That was a blast," Freiman said. "Even I was getting into it near the end when he was getting late into his pitch count, he worked back from a couple three-ball counts to get some guys, crowd was on its feet. That was a lot of fun."

Freiman provided the early offense for the A's with a two-run double in the first and a two-run homer in the third, shifting the focus onto Gray's outing. Gray threw a lot of pitches in the first two innings, striking out three and walking one, but settled in to retire eight in a row at one point and not allow a runner into scoring position until the seventh.

In doing so, Gray showed why his has been an anticipated arrival. His fastball regularly hit the low-to-mid 90's with movement, he recorded a handful of strikeouts on a sharp curveball and mixed in a changeup. Gray also throws a slider -- but didn't even break it out on Thursday, catcher Derek Norris said, despite going three times through the Astros lineup and facing their top two hitters a fourth time.

"He was outstanding," Norris said. "The silly part about it is he throws nothing straight. His fastball cuts and dips. ... It was very exciting.

"Without trying to talk him up too much, he's a good young arm and he's going to be big for us down the stretch."

The A's have made it clear these are not spot-starts for Gray, even with Brett Anderson's return seemingly imminent and Tommy Milone making adjustments in the minors. Right now it appears Gray will be a factor in September despite not making his debut until July, which led to Melvin being asked after Thursday's game how adding an arm like Gray's could affect the A.L. West race for the next month and a half.

"I don't really look at it as far as changing the dynamic," Melvin said. "It just means we have another quality guy -- stuff-wise, probably as good as anybody we have.

"You want to make sure somebody like that is ready for the big leagues more emotionally than anything else, and I think the organization did a smart thing bringing him up and pitching him out of the bullpen a couple times to get his feet wet."

Gray seems like the type that would have been OK with the transition regardless of how it was handled. He fiddled with his hands through most of the post-game questions from reporters, but Norris said the rookie "shows a lot of composure on the mound. He's one of those guys with a lot of energy, can't sit still in the dugout, but he's very composed."

Before Thursday, Gray's season-high had been 109 pitches in Triple-A. He was at 99 as Melvin sent him out to start the eighth inning and at 104 after Villar's double.

"It's a 5-0 game, at that point in time he's rolling pretty good, and I don't want to use any of our three (late-game) relievers," Melvin said. "If we pushed him there a little bit with the adrenaline and so forth -- obviously I'm always uncomfortable when one of our younger guys throws 110 pitches, but eight more pitches with the adrenaline he had really helped us out."

Gray said the pitch count wasn't a problem.

"I felt fine," he said. "BoMel came up after the seventh and asked me how I felt, and I told him fine. It was good for him to have the confidence in me to leave me out there."

On this day, it played out to script. Gray finished the inning and walked off the Coliseum field to a standing ovation.

"Pretty impressive performance," Melvin said. "He's got plus-everything, great disposition on the mound, very confident kid, athletic as you saw from some of the plays he made coming off the mound. So a very impressive performance."

* The print story Friday is heavy on the career day from another A's rookie -- Freiman, who set a personal mark with four hits and continued to terrorize the team that waived him in spring training.

In eight games against the Astros this season, Freiman is 9-for-22 with six extra-base hits, including all three of his home runs and 10 of his 22 RBIs. Erik Bedard, who started for Houston on Thursday, has been his favorite target -- he's 4-for-5 against Bedard with two homers and seven RBIs.

"Frei with four hits and we had eight," Melvin said. "I told him he was showing off."

Freiman, who's extremely soft-spoken, downplayed the idea he sees Bedard particularly well or has any kind of grudge against the Astros for letting him go in spring training. He said Thursday was probably the product of some good cage work before the game with Chili Davis and Ariel Prieto.

He also said that despite needing only a triple for the cycle going into his fourth at-bat, he wasn't thinking along those lines. Instead, he singled to right off reliever Lucas Harrell -- his sixth hit off a right-hander this year in 35 at-bats.

"Someone like me, I can't be going in there trying to hit a triple," the 6-foot-8 Freiman said. "That's not going to result in anything good."

Freiman did have an interesting take on his status with the A's. As a former Rule 5 draft pick, Freiman needs to stick on the active roster all season or be offered back to the San Diego Padres, who put him up for that draft after last year.

Freiman is hitting .315 since May 1 and .319 for the season against left-handers -- the main reason the A's claimed him as a complement to Brandon Moss at first base. But even with two-thirds of the season gone, Freiman said he still doesn't consider his spot with the A's secure.

"Definitely not comfortable," Freiman said. "I have to get my work in every day. There's no comfort in this game. You have a good day and it earns you the ability to have your jersey in your locker again tomorrow."

Pretty certain it'll be there when the A's open a three-game series against Cleveland on Friday.

* Norris started after missing four games with a stiff back and left early after he said the back stiffened up on him again. That happened on a pitch from Gray that Norris had to reach back for, and Melvin said the A's took Norris out as a precaution.

"I'm fine," Norris said. "Just tightened up a little."

Before that, Norris and Gray appeared to click despite their relative unfamiliarity. Gray said the two "were really on the same page especially from the third inning on." That showed with Gray bouncing curveballs in the dirt on several occasions with the belief that Norris would block them.

"He was like a vacuum just sucking everything up," Gray said. "It's nice to have the confidence in him to bounce it whenever I want."

* Melvin said shortstop Eric Sogard was also OK after being struck by a bat shard on a weird play in the seventh. Chris Carter's bat broke on a soft line drive and followed the trajectory of the ball almost perfectly. Sogard caught the ball but couldn't quite leap over the barrel of the bat, and Melvin said it hit him in the shin.

"You don't see that often," Melvin said. "You're concentrating on the ball, next thing you're hit in the leg. But he's all right."

* Dan Otero pitched the ninth inning, allowing a walk and a double but striking out Matt Dominguez to preserve the shutout, and was probably happy to actually get into a game. Melvin pointed out it was the fourth day Otero had gotten up in the bullpen "hot" -- with the intention of entering the game -- and the first time he'd actually been summoned.

* Josh Donaldson didn't have a hit, but he walked twice to extend his streak of reaching base safely to 18 games, a career-high.

* The Rangers were off Thursday, meaning the A's picked up a half-game in the West standings and are now 1 ½ games out. Cleveland arrives on Friday for a three-game series. The pitching probables:

Friday: RHP Justin Masterson (13-8, 3.59) vs. RHP A.J. Griffin (10-8, 3.88)
Saturday: RHP Ubaldo Jimenez (8-7, 4.11) vs. RHP Dan Straily (6-6, 4.19)
Sunday: LHP Scott Kazmir (7-5, 4.18) vs. RHP Bartolo Colon (14-5, 2.97).

The Sunday matchup should be particularly interesting, with two guys who have really resurrected their careers. For now, that's it from Oakland on a good day to be a rookie.

-- Matt Kawahara

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About Bay Area Baseball

Matt KawaharaMatt Kawahara was born in Sacramento and attended McClatchy High School and UC Berkeley, where he wrote for the independent student paper The Daily Californian. He graduated from Cal in 2010 and started at The Sacramento Bee as a summer intern. He joined The Bee’s sports staff in fall 2011.
Email: mkawahara@sacbee.com.
Phone: (916) 321-1015.
On Twitter: @matthewkawahara.

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