Second inning blemishes Gray's solid outing

Sonny Gray continues to have a strong debut season with Triple-A Sacramento, pitching himself to the top of the PCL in strikeouts with his outing Thursday. His numbers have taken a slight dip in June, but there are still signs of progression.

Line scores are often deceiving, just like the one from Sonny Gray's start Thursday night with Triple-A Sacramento.

The line: four runs, six hits over seven innings. The rub? Gray allowed all of his runs with no outs in the second inning and then retired 16 of the last 18 hitters he faced. He finished with eight strikeouts and allowed just two base runners in his last five innings.

"It's kind of frustrating a little bit to give up four runs in the second inning with as good as I felt tonight," Gray said. "It's also kind of rewarding to get to seven innings after throwing 40 pitches in one."

The River Cats wound up with the 7-4 win, thanks to Gray's ability to limit the damage to just one inning and Grant Green's two homers with four driven in. Michael Taylor also scored twice and hit a late two-run homer to right center.

The Athletics' prized right-hander has steadily been one of the Pacific Coast League's best in his first full season at Triple-A. After Thursday, he took over the league lead in strikeouts, totaling 98 for the year, two ahead of Drew Pomeranz, who is reportedly getting promoted to the Rockies for a start Sunday.

"His fastball wasn't doing much. It was just sitting and his breaking ball wasn't doing anything to keep them off of it either. You saw what happened," River Cats manager Steve Scarsone said.

After walking Reno's Mike Jacobs, Gray yielded four-straight hits, got a strikeout and another single. On the ropes with just one out and four runs plated, he got the rehabbing Eric Chavez to roll over on a changeup into a 4-6-3 double play.

"If this happened last year in Midland, he might not have recovered," Scarsone said, having managed Gray last year at Double-A. "I think he was able to fall back on some of the stuff he's been having success with all summer. And he just started trusting himself."

Gray was dominant in May with a 1.94 ERA and 36 hits allowed in 41.2 innings. His ERA has elevated to 4.26 in June. But there shouldn't be much cause for concern considering how well he's thrown on the road in some traditionally treacherous ballparks for pitchers.

The 5'11" Vanderbilt alum has just a 3.08 ERA away from Sacramento, including a pair of starts in both Reno and Tucson. His worst road start came April 18 in Las Vegas, where he allowed four earned runs in five innings. For the season, Gray is 7-5 with a 3.02 ERA, the highest it's been since after his third start of the season.

At 23, Gray's professional career was expedited by his collegiate success that allowed him to go to Double-A Midland after just one outing in the Arizona Rookie League. Gray bypassed Single-A Stockton of the California League, where pitchers' confidence has gone to die in the past.

It was a credit to his stuff. Gray features a mid-90s four-seam fastball and a two-seamer that has good action. His 12-to-six curveball has always been his staple, and he continues to refine a changeup as a supplemental offering.

Scarsone has said all season he believes the most growth for Gray in 2013 has come between the ears, where he's been able to manage his emotions and bounce back from strenuous circumstances.

For Gray, he believes his secondary pitches have come a long way, especially in his ability to place them in and out of the strike zone. It's allowed him to get strikeouts at a higher rate than any other point during his pro career.

"I'm getting a lot of swings on my breaking ball and that's probably because my fastballs better this year," Gray said. "And I'm throwing my breaking ball noticeably better this year than last year."

Gray's numbers in June could be a product of wear and tear after putting forth so much effort to improve early on this season. He's throwing an average of 6.1 innings per start, up almost a full inning from 2012 with Midland.

But it's become clear Gray is likely the best option should the major league club need another starter once Dan Straily is moved back into the rotation in early-July, as expected. But without an injury or collapse in production from any of the current starters, the A's will be able to bide their time with Gray before putting him in the fold for a spot in the rotation next spring. There's also a chance he's added to the major league roster when rosters expand in September, despite not currently being on the 40-man roster.

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