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Sonny Gray and the art of pitching in New York for the Yankees

Yankees pitcher Sonny Gray looks on during a

Yankees pitcher Sonny Gray looks on during a game against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on Friday. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

For some athletes, playing in New York, specifically for the Yankees, presents challenges. It can become a career-changing — or defining — experience, especially for pitchers who have incurred the fans’ wrath at Yankee Stadium.

The main targets of the past include Ed Whitson, Kevin Brown, Kenny Rogers, Hideki Irabu, Javier Vasquez, Carl Pavano and A.J Burnett.

Whitson became the most reviled pitcher and recipient of the fans’ ire under George Steinbrenner’s ownership before the Yankees rescued him by sending him back to the Padres in 1986. At one point, the club protected him from the fans by not pitching him at home.

Steinbrenner actually would fuel the fans’ anger, calling out his pitchers. He termed Irabu a “fat toad” and said Ken Clay “spit the bit” and Jim Beattie looked “scared stiff.”

Whitson, speaking to ESPN in 2010, described pitching amid the boos “like working in an office and your boss comes in and says ‘You [expletive]’ after you’ve tried your best. Now multiply that by 50,000 bosses . . . and imagine what that feels like.’’

Hal Steinbrenner isn’t vocal like his dad, but the Stadium fans still let the players know where they stand.

Yankees starter Sonny Gray was booed off the Stadium mound in his last start. The 28-year-old righthander is baffled about what is going on in his first full season since coming over from the A’s last July. In four starts, he is 1-1 with an 8.27 earned run average. He’s walked 11 and given up 23 hits in 16 1⁄3 innings. His last two starts have been particularly bad, as he allowed 11 runs in 6 1⁄3 innings against the Blue Jays and Red Sox.

Gray, who is scheduled to pitch at home Thursday against the Twins, said he doesn’t know why he isn’t pitching well, but he’s not ready to go there in attributing his struggles to the big city, bright lights, big expectations.

The New York jinx? Does Gray believe in it?

“No, I don’t,” he said tersely over the weekend at the Stadium.

Is there a different dynamic to performing well here?

“I don’t think so,’’ he said. “I think it’s baseball, I think it’s baseball.’’

Yankees manager Aaron Boone is puzzled about what Gray’s problem might be.

“I don’t think it’s anything physical, I don’t think it’s anything mechanical,’’ he said. “I think he’s not getting ahead as much as he normally would. I think pitches are there. I think the stuff is there. I think just the execution of the game plan and then boiling it down to just as simple as getting ahead.

“He’s not getting strike one as much as he has historically in his career. I think getting him to continue to pound the strike zone and his ability to spin the baseball — which is so good — he’s got to continue to stick with. We’ve got to help him through this . . . I absolutely believe it’s in there. So hopefully we’ll look back on this as just a tough start and maybe he’ll be better for having gone through it. But we’ve got to get him right. He’s really important to our club.’’

Gray’s acquisition from the A’s last season — an hour before the July 31 trade deadline — for Dustin Fowler, Jorge Mateo and James Kaprielian was considered something of a blockbuster move to fortify the starting rotation. Gray arrived with a 6-5 record and 3.43 ERA. He was 4-2 with a 1.37 ERA in his last six starts with Oakland.

Gray, who suffered from a lack of run support after the trade, was 4-7 with a 3.72 ERA with the Yankees in 2017 and was hit hard in two of his final three starts. He lost to the Indians in the ALDS and was skipped a start by then-manager Joe Girardi, but after sitting for 12 days, he beat the Astros in Game 4 of the ALCS.

Gray is making $6.5 million this season and is arbitration-eligible in 2019 before hitting free agency in 2020.

Gray is not the only Yankee under scrutiny by the fans. Despite all that reigning National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton has accomplished in the game, he has been the target of boos during his slow start.

“Shoot, track records don’t matter in the moment,” Stanton, who went 4-for-4 with a long home run and an RBI single against the Twins on Monday night, told reporters last week. “You understand what you’ve done, but if you’re in there with a lack of confidence, you might as well go sit down anyways, and that’s from the start of any career. Bad times, good times, whatever.”

As for the boos, Stanton said, “You’ve got to own up to it and understand and find a way to get better, find a way to get out of it.”

Gray had no answer. “Man, I don’t know. I’m not sure,’’ he said.

Asked if he is confident he can turn it around, he said, “Yeah. I mean, I better.’’

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