BALTIMORE — Two hundred miles from Yankee Stadium, Sonny Gray got a standing ovation.
The surprising scene took place during Game 2 of Saturday’s doubleheader, in the seventh inning, after Aaron Boone took the baseball from his right hand. As Gray turned to leave the mound, thousands rose to their feet at Camden Yards, in their Ruth and Jeter jerseys, saluting his exit with sincere, appreciative, loud applause that lasted until he disappeared down the dugout steps.
“It felt like a home crowd for sure,” Gray said. “That was nice. It was really nice.”
Gray was right. In the sense that these fans were friendly, and cheered his every pitch, this grassy corner of the Inner Harbor did make him seem at home. For Gray, it was nothing like the Bronx, which has been a cold, angry, frustrating place during his struggle in pinstripes.
On Saturday, Gray shut down the feeble Orioles for 6[/DROPCAP] 1⁄3 scoreless innings, allowing three hits and a walk and striking out eight in a 5-1 victory that completed a sweep of the doubleheader for the Yankees.
The same pitcher who was banished to the bullpen 24 days earlier displayed an entirely different demeanor, attacking with his fastball to set up a wicked slider. No nibbling. No nervous pacing around the mound. The previous insecurities had evaporated, and Gray truly dominated.
Say what you want about Baltimore’s 4-A lineup, but Gray performed as if he trusted his abilities again, and he later talked as if the confidence is real. It’s certainly not lacking at Camden Yards, where Gray improved to 4-0 with a 0.38 ERA as a Yankee, with four walks and 26 strikeouts in 24 innings.
“If I can go out and throw the ball like that, I think I can get anybody out,” said Gray, who wore his nickname “Pickles’’ on the back of his jersey. “I know I can get anybody out. I’m one of the best starting pitchers in this league and I truly believe that. I think it’s that belief that will continue to keep me moving forward and hopefully continue to have success from here on out.”
That success, for the immediate future, will have to come in the bullpen. Aaron Boone reiterated that Saturday’s start was a one-and-done for Gray, who sounded resigned to his fate.
There’s no overlooking the fact that Gray is a considerably better pitcher outside of New York — a detail that Brian Cashman even voiced during a recent radio interview — and it probably has him postmarked for a smaller market as soon as this season is over.
The numbers don’t lie. On the road this season, Gray has a 3.09 ERA and has allowed three home runs in 64 innings, with 18 walks and 71 strikeouts. Move him to the Bronx, and his ERA more than doubles to 7.32. He has surrendered 10 homers in 55 1⁄3 innings at Yankee Stadium, with 34 walks and 42 strikeouts.
Boone deflected the question about the disparity between Gray’s splits, but he recognized it as a season-long narrative.
As for Gray, he credited the bullpen move with helping to some degree, although he obviously views himself as a front-line starting pitcher. He’s probably coming to the realization, like Cashman, that it’s going to have to happen somewhere else.
In the meantime, both Gray and the Yankees will try to make this a mutually beneficial arrangement however he’s deployed.
“I think I’ve grown a lot in this last month as a pitcher and as a person just being in the bullpen,” Gray said. “I get to sit down there in the bullpen for nine innings and there’s really nowhere to go. You’re down there and I get to talk pitching with some of the best pitchers in the game. Their mindsets and everything that goes into it.
“It’s different being in the bullpen and I know ultimately I want to be a starter in this league, but I’ve learned a lot down there for sure.”
At least Gray is trying. He didn’t check out mentally after the demotion, and as a result, he came back to deliver a strong performance against the Orioles. On the few occasions in which he found himself in a jam, he calmly steered his way free.
In the second inning, after a wild pitch put a runner in scoring position, Gray struck out the next two hitters. When Trey Mancini’s double put Orioles at second and third in the fourth, Gray unleashed a nasty slider to whiff Renato Nuñez and kill the threat.
In a season of personal disappointment, this was a great day for Gray, from the opening pitch to the standing ovation. That it came at Camden Yards was not a coincidence.