Can a player have his True Yankee moment at Citi Field? Beneath the turbine roar of the Delta Shuttle, with a September breeze off Flushing Bay?
Sonny Gray did Tuesday night. For a while, anyway.
In what should have been further validation of the deadline trade that brought Gray to the Bronx, a deal that propped up the vulnerable middle of the Yankees’ rotation, his brilliant effort was wiped out by an eighth-inning smack off Adeiny Hechavarria’s bat.
Gray already had shrugged off Kevin Kiermaier’s first-inning home run, and rose to the occasion in the fifth with back-to-back strikeouts that stranded Rays at the corners while bringing the pro-Yankees crowd to its feet.
But all that time working without a net, clinging to a 1-1 tie, eventually cost both Gray and the Yankees when his first-pitch fastball to Hechavarria wound up over the leftfield wall. The pitch split the plate, about belt high, and Hechavarria’s bat flip indicated he knew exactly where it was headed. Gray had an idea, too.
“I threw that same pitch a number of times and got people out,” Gray said. “I just got beat there. I got beat at a point in the game where you can’t get beat.”
Still. What more could the Yankees possibly expect from Gray, who dropped to 3-5 since the trade despite a 2.66 ERA in those eight starts. After Girardi’s itchy trigger finger with the rest of the non-Severino rotation, Gray is the other guy to actually give the Yankees length, and he threw only 94 pitches Tuesday night for the sixth complete game of his career.
To make matters worse for Gray, he’s received either one or zero runs of support in each of his five losses, with the Yankees averaging 0.8 runs during this time on the mound. So it’s tough to point a finger at Gray with at least nine other candidates deserving an equal share of the blame in his defeats.
“It’s unfortunate, but over time, it’s going to work out,” Joe Girardi said afterward. “Over the long haul, if you pitch like that, it’s going to work out very well for everyone involved.”
Girardi was telling that to reporters during his postgame news conference, but he was probably saying it as much to convince himself of the same thing. Basically, Gray made two mistakes Tuesday night, resulting in two solo home runs, and walked off the mound a loser.
Not only did Gray put the Yankees in a great position to win, but the day after Girardi had to torch both Chad Green and David Robertson, Gray also spared the bullpen — something the manager definitely appreciates with the way he burns through his relief corps. Gray has pitched at least six innings in 18 of his 24 starts this season, an essential talent for a rotation with members who can flame out quickly.
What made Hechavarria’s game-winning blast so surprising was that Gray had whiffed him in his two previous at-bats, including his only real jam of the evening. That was the fifth inning, with one out, after the Rays had backed Gray into a corner with two ground-ball hits, both leaking through the left side of the infield.
With Rays at first and third, Gray fanned Hechavarria on five pitches, the last an 86-mph slider.
Next up, however was Kiermaier, who crushed Gray’s first pitch of the night for a long homer. But as soon as Gray got ahead 1-and-2, every fan in the stadium — the Mets’ building, on loan to the Rays — rose to their feet, clapping wildly, urging Gray for one more strike.
Close your eyes, and Flushing was the Bronx, the soundtrack transported for the Yankees’ trip across town.
This was a bizarre scene, witnessing a pitcher wearing Yankees’ road grays cheered so loudly, in what officially was a Rays’ home game, before a surprising crowd of 21,024 that sounded more like a sellout.
“It felt a little weird for sure,” Gray said.
But in a good way, and when Gray whiffed Kiermaier with a slider, the fans exploded in celebration — and he pumped his fist, yelling along with them.
Gray then reeled off the next nine outs, biding time for a Yankees rescue that never came.
“Anytime you lose, it’s tough to swallow,” Gray said. “No matter how it happens.”
For Gray, however, the disappointment is becoming too familiar.