After posting a 4.71 ERA in 78.1 innings for Low-A Kane County, Gray finished the 2006 season in High-A Stockton, where he made 18 relief appearances and posted a 3.38 ERA. He began the 2007 season in Double-A Midland, where he was nearly flawless in eight appearances for the Rockhounds. He went 2-0 with three saves in 12.1 scoreless innings for Midland before being promoted to Triple-A Sacramento.
Since that time, Gray has been a key member of the first-place Sacramento River Cats' bullpen. Gray struggled during his first month in Triple-A, posting an 0-3 record and an 8.22 ERA in 15.1 innings in May. However, he improved to 2-0 with a 3.21 ERA in 14 innings in June and has been excellent ever since. For the month of August, Gray has an 0.90 ERA with six saves for Sacramento and he has assumed the closer's role for the River Cats during the stretch run. Sacramento manager Tony DeFrancesco said of Gray that he has "one of the best arms in our organization" when we spoke to the River Cats' skipper in mid-June.
This was a big week for Gray, who was named as one of seven Oakland A's representatives to the exclusive prospect showcase, the Arizona Fall League. We recently spoke to Gray about being named to the AFL, his improved velocity, the pressures of closing in a pennant race and more...
Jeff Gray: Actually, it is the next step for me. It really feels good to be associated with some of the prospects that we have in our organization, but I'm ready to get going and get on to the next step. It feels really good.
OC: Is there anything in particular that you think you would want to work on in the Fall League that you can't work on during the regular season?
JG: To be honest with you, I have a lot of things to work on and I'll probably try to work on them all at once. [laughs]
One of the things I probably need to work on is my control. Being able to throw all of my pitches for strikes on a consistent basis. This game is about consistency and I think that is one thing that I need to get better at.
OC: I know you did a lot of starting in college and during your first couple of seasons as a pro before transitioning to the bullpen for good during the middle of last season. Was it much of an adjustment to move to the bullpen?
JG: It is a little bit. I had to pick-up some things on the fly. The main thing that I had a problem with when I switched over was that as a starter, pitching is kind of like an endurance race. You want to last for as long as you can and get through as many innings as you possibly can. As a reliever, you might only face these guys one time and only see three batters. It may be different batters on different days. You might hold on to different pitches for later as a starter, but here [in the bullpen] you can throw all of your pitches and not hold back. It is really a sprint. You can use them all.
Just getting that philosophy down and getting used to coming in with men on-base and what to do in those key situations is a big thing that I have had to learn.
JG: To me, it is pretty much the same scenario. You know you've got to get in and you've got to get the outs. If you can get through it without any runs scored, it makes it even better. The only difference [in the ninth inning] is that they can tie the game or you can lose it. That's the only real difference.
For me, I try not to really think about putting that extra pressure on myself. If I get the call for the ninth, I try to think ‘okay, you need to go 1-2-3, you've done it before, let's do it again.'
OC: You only got a short taste of Double-A earlier this year, but do you think the transition from High-A to Double-A or Double-A to Triple-A was the hardest?
JG: That's kind of a tricky question because I wasn't [in Double-A] for very long. The transition from High-A to Double-A was a little different because you are facing better hitters, of course, but I think the real transition is from Double-A to Triple-A. You are facing really good hitters here. You might be facing major leaguers on a rehab stint or players who have been around a long time. They have a better understanding of the strike zone and they kind of know what you are going to do.
You are going to be facing guys who have been playing in minor league and major league baseball for who knows how long, seven years or so, and they actually know the game really well. I've come to find out that Double-A to Triple-A is a little tougher. [laughs]
JG: This team is really good. We have welcomed everyone who has come in and it has been sad to see guys leave. Everyone has gelled together really well and they get along and have a really good time. We like to have a lot of fun and we try not to let the pressure of playing in tight games or playoff races get in the way of us enjoying the game.
OC: Did you pitch in the playoffs for Vancouver and Stockton the last couple of years?
JG: Yes, I did.
OC: Does that experience help you in these sort of playoff races to have done that before?
JG: Yeah. Every team I have been on has kind of been a contender. I am used these kind of playoff races and stuff like that. You can't really look at it as a playoff race, though. It's just another game that you have to go out and win.
OC: When I spoke to [A's Director of Player Development] Keith Lieppman this spring, he mentioned that you saw a bump in velocity with your fastball last season. Did you change anything with your motion or was it just one of those things?
JG: To be honest with you, I really haven't figured out where it came from. As a starter, I was always upper-80s, maybe low-90s. Now I am throwing pretty hard and people always ask: ‘where did it come from?'
The only thing that I have figured out that may have helped me was that I did a couple of things with my mechanics. I was finally able to figure out where everything had to be at the right time to increase my velocity a bit. Also, as a starter, you kind of want to last a little longer, so I was concentrating more on throwing strikes [than throwing hard]. In the bullpen, you can just push a couple of extra [miles per hour] and I think that something to do with it. I also think that my arm kind of matured a little bit. It kind of got a little stronger and I lost a little weight. I wasn't as big as I was the last couple of years coming out of college. I think it might be a combination of all of those things, to be honest with you.
OC: What are the pitches that you are throwing right now?
JG: Fastball, slider, curveball and a change-up.
OC: Is there one that you consider your "out-pitch" at this point?
JG: Not really. It all depends on what is on that day. [laughs]
OC: Have you added any pitches this season or were these the pitches that you came into the season with?
JG: I've just sort of held-on to those. I've had a little trouble with my slider being inconsistent, so at various points I have kind of thrown that out the window and then brought it back in. Other than that, I've just tried to put all of them in the right spot at the right time.
OC: Have you been able to build a rapport with the Sacramento catchers?
JG: Definitely. I'm comfortable with both of them [Jeremy Brown and J.D. Closser]. They know what my strengths are and I am glad to have them behind there because sometimes they know me better than I know myself.
OC: Were you college teammates with Brad Ziegler at Southwest Missouri State?
JG: Yes, I was. I was a teammate of his for three years.
OC: Was it kind of nice to be teammates with him again this season?
JG: You know, I hadn't gotten a chance to play with Brad since college, so it has kind of brought back memories of old college times. Playoff races and stuff like that, so, yeah, it has been nice.
OC: Did you get to play in the College World Series with Southwest Missouri State?
JG: I was there, but I didn't get a chance to pitch in the game.
OC: What is that whole atmosphere at the College World Series like? Has there been anything at the pro level that compares to what that whole scene is like?
JG: That whole scene is just amazing. As a college student – unless you go to a really big school that has a lot of baseball fans – you don't expect to have 25,000 fans there to see you play like we did in the first game against Rice. Just walking out on the field to warm-up before the game and to see all of the fans, it is just amazing having the whole stadium full. The fun thing about that is that we went back to Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha this year, and it brought back memories of that.
In pro ball, here in Sacramento, having all of the fans here, I think that is the biggest comparison to that experience. In other places, you might not have a lot of fans at your games, but here in Sacramento, you actually have some people who are into the game and screaming and yelling and that is a lot of fun. I think that is the biggest thing out of that whole atmosphere that is pretty amazing, is just having the fans, all the media, it's a lot of fun.
OC: Do you have any plans for your off-season once the Arizona Fall League is over?
JG: I really don't like shutting my arm off at all. I am always worried that I am going to lose what I have right now. I might take a couple of weeks off and have a little bit of a break, but other than that, probably after that I'll turn around and get going again and get ready for next year.