Sonny Gray appears to be riding in the fast lane. The former Vanderbilt ace actually considers himself to be cruising at a comfortable pace.
Less than two years since the Oakland A’s drafted him in the first round, the 23-year-old has moved up the minor league ladder to Triple-A. Gray expected to advance quickly and isn’t surprised he is currently pitching for the Sacramento River Cats.
Now, the trick is to keep that attitude even though just one phone call separates him from making his debut in the major leagues.
“That is the hard thing about it — you’ve got to stay in the moment,” Gray said. “This is where I expected to be. … Like any competitor, I feel like I can pitch anywhere. But it is not really my call to say. All I can do is get myself as ready as possible and just wait for my opportunity.”
Gray returns to Nashville for the first time in his professional career this weekend. The right-hander is scheduled to start against the Sounds on Saturday at Greer Stadium. He is expecting an overwhelming presence of family and friends from his hometown of Smyrna.
Playing in the Oakland farm system, opportunities to pitch in the South have been rare. Thus far as a professional, Gray has played for teams in Arizona, Texas and California.
“It is pretty far from home and that can get you sometimes,” Gray said. “It will be really cool to pitch in front of some familiar faces. Pitching at Greer Stadium will be cool because I went to some games there as a kid. Now going back and actually being a player on that field will be pretty neat.”
Despite rising to Triple-A rather quickly, Gray said he has had to adjust to a learning curve — namely a quicker turnaround in pros.
While at Vanderbilt, he pitched just once a week and started just 18 games in 2011 when he helped the Commodores reached the College World Series. Now, pitching every five days, the 5-foot-11, 200-pounder said he has had to adapt his preparation.
“The playing every day and figuring out what routine you’re going to do in between starts” is the biggest adjustment, he said. “Some days you’re going to have save your arm a little bit. There are a lot more games here where you don’t feel as quite as good as you did in college. Every start in college you felt pretty good. You’re body breaks down a little more when you’re playing 144 games instead of 50. You have to keep your body going.”
Gray felt some of those effects last year when he went 6-9 with a 4.26 ERA between Double-A Midland and Sacramento. This year, however, he has benefitted from a better start.
In five starts, he is 3-1 with a 2.61 ERA, one complete game and 25 strikeouts in 31 innings.
“I’ve been fortunate to get off to a good start this year. That is really all you can ask for at this point,” Gray said. “I’ve been able to throw a fastball a little bit more consistently in the strike zone this year. My fastball command and the movement on my fastball has been a huge plus.”
Gray also credited his time at Vanderbilt for putting him on the fast track.
Drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 27th round out of high school, he decided to stick with his commitment to play at Vanderbilt. He was considered a possible first-round pick but was emphatic about his desire to go to college.
Over the next three years at Vanderbilt, he finished second in program history with 27 wins and fourth with 317 strikeouts.
“The time I spent there prepared me so much for where I am now and where I hope to be some day,” Gray said.
That coveted spot in the big leagues could be coming soon.
Earlier this week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Gray could be called up if Jarrod Parker had to be placed on the disabled list. Gray says he hasn’t been told to get a bag ready but his goal is to get called up by season’s end. Even so, he has no complaints about the ride up to this point.
“I’m happy,” he said. “There is nothing to really not be happy about except for one day hopefully I’ll be able to pitch in Oakland. I’m very happy. I feel like I just have to keep throwing the ball well and the opportunity will come. I think [getting called up] will be a pretty special time. It is one of those few moments in your life that you remember what you were doing, where you were. It is probably one of those moments you remember everything about for the rest of your life.
“I’m hoping. That’s my goal. We’ll see what happens from here.”