CHICAGO – It’s too soon to say Aaron Boone has yet another quality arm to choose from in a bullpen already flush with them. Sonny Gray's three-inning scoreless gem in relief Tuesday night was, impressive as it was, only one outing.
And it was against the White Sox, who came into Wednesday night 41-72 and don’t exactly feature the kind of lineup the Yankees saw in Boston last weekend.
Yet the professionalism Gray displayed in accepting his demotion from the rotation and in his first relief outing since 2013 – a 4-3 victory in 13 innings – has Boone thinking about what could be.
“Man, he threw the ball so well last night,” Boone said before the series finale against the White Sox. “He was electric with his stuff, he was aggressive. Just excited for him. And hopefully for us it’s a role that he can continue to thrive in and provide us with maybe a new weapon to have with some length down there.”
Gray lost his rotation spot to Lance Lynn after a horrid outing Aug. 1 against the Orioles in which he allowed seven runs in 2 2/3 innings, which dropped him to 8-8 with a 5.56 ERA. A day later, Boone and pitching coach Larry Rothschild told him he was going to the bullpen. Lynn quickly staked claim to the spot, throwing 7 1/3 innings in Monday night’s 7-0 victory.
Gray took the news he received in Boston in stride. “I’ve struggled and they’ve given me ample opportunities to turn it around,” he said last Thursday.
But Boone made clear to him he wasn’t being banished to anonymity.
“Obviously, it’s difficult news, but one of the things we challenged him right away with was saying, ‘Listen, you’re going into an important role, and you don’t know how it’s going to manifest itself,’ ” Boone said Wednesday. “Well, his first time out there happens to be in the most high-leverage spot you could be, and for him to go out there and absolutely deliver…you saw how excited the guys were for him.”
Gray entered a 3-3 game in the 11th inning and struck out four and allowed one hit in the next three innings.
“Everyone’s had my back, everyone’s let me know that, and it was nice to come into that situation and pitch well enough to get a win there,” Gray said. “That was big for me personally and for us as a team.”
After absorbing the sting of the demotion, Gray embraced it, seeking out some of the relievers – Chad Green and David Robertson, among them – for advice.
“I think what most guys have trouble with when they switch to the bullpen from being a starter is how much do I need to throw to get ready to pitch in a game?” said Green, who also made the transition from starter to reliever. “Trying to figure out a routine on the mound is the biggest thing. Where he feels loose enough to go into a game, but you don’t want to blow it out in the bullpen, either.”
Green called the outing “really impressive,” particularly given it was Gray’s first relief appearance in five years.
“It’s a whole different game,” Green said. “You give up one run and the game’s over. For his first time doing that ... just really impressive. “He keeps pitching like that and he’ll do just fine.”