BALTIMORE — When the first batter he faced lined a drive right back at him, Sonny Gray did not flinch. Well, maybe he flinched a little, but he also caught the screamer hit by former Yankee Jace Peterson.
When Manny Machado hit a solo home run off him two batters later, Gray did not crumble. He went on to pitch six innings and allowed only that run as the Yankees beat the Orioles, 4-1, on Friday night at Camden Yards.
The enigmatic righthander has had two superb outings in his last three. He gave up one run in eight innings at Kansas City on May 20, giving the Yankees hope he had turned a corner. But after the Angels strafed Gray for five runs in 3 2⁄3 innings May 26, questions continued to fester about whether he would live up to his past success or his stuff.
He did Friday. Pitching against the team that had scored the fewest runs in the American League, Gray (4-4, 5.50 ERA) allowed four hits, hit a batter and struck out six. He threw 90 pitches, 55 for strikes.
“Really good,” Aaron Boone said. “And I thought he got better as the night went on. I thought through the middle innings, he found a nice little rhythm. He tired a little bit at the end, but overall a really sharp outing, especially after giving up the homer in the first inning there. No blink — made pitches when he had to when he did get into jams. It was nice to see him get in a better rhythm as the night went on.”
Said Gray: “I thought my breaking balls were good. My curve was good, my slider was good. I think the fastball was going both ways and I was just throwing strikes. Obviously, that’s big for me if I’m throwing strikes consistently and I’m in the zone.”
The Yankees (36-17, .679) moved percentage points ahead of the Red Sox (39-19, .672) for the AL East lead, although they trail Boston by a half-game.
Greg Bird drove in the go-ahead run in the fifth with his first major-league triple and Aaron Judge hit a majestic solo home run to left off lefthander Tanner Scott in the seventh. Even the Orioles fans in the typically Yankees fan-heavy Camden Yards crowd got a thrill out of seeing his 16th homer.
The 438-foot blast lifted Judge to 32-for-82 (.390) with 13 homers and 29 RBIs in 24 games against the Orioles since the start of the 2017 season. (Judge, who also has walked 27 times in those 24 games, subsequently struck out in the ninth.)
After Machado hit his 17th homer, Gleyber Torres tied it with an RBI single off Andrew Cashner (2-7, 5.02) in the third. The Yankees loaded the bases with none out, but Cashner retired the next three batters to keep the score tied.
Bird untied it with a two-out triple to deep center in the fifth. Adam Jones got to the drive at the wall but saw it glance off the bottom of his glove as the Yankees took a 2-1 lead.
Austin Romine made it 3-1 with an opposite-field double in the sixth. In his last eight games, Romine is 12-for-23 with 10 RBIs.
Chad Green escaped a two-on, two-out situation in the seventh by striking out pinch hitter Pedro Alvarez. Dellin Betances loaded the bases with one out in the eighth on two walks and a hit batter. He recovered to strike out Jonathan Schoop and get Chris Davis to fly out to center.
Aroldis Chapman struck out the side in a perfect ninth for his 13th save as the Yankees won the opener of this shortened three-game series. Thursday’s game was rained out. Saturday’s may be, too. But Friday’s was Sonny.
Said Bird: “Sonny pitched a hell of a game, first and foremost.”