Once upon a time, Athletics fans hailed a Sonny Gray start with a banner on the railing reading, “Forecast: Sonny with Chance of Strikeouts.” For Gray’s Yankee debut against Corey Kluber and the Indians, you could have forgiven Indians fans if they’d thought to hang one reading, “Forecast: Sonny with Chance of Errors.”
Not that Gray pitched terribly. He pitched exactly the way the Yankees needed him to pitch, both on Thursday night and down the stretch. But on a night when Kluber was the self the nation got to know last October, the Yankees said thank you for their new toy by killing him with their boots.
It began with the Indians’ first hitter of the night. Bradley Zimmer ripped a hard smash up the first base line. Chase Headley crouched to take it and had no handle on it, the ball flicking off the heel of his mitt and then off his chest, and Headley unable to get the underhand toss to Gray covering in time.
Zimmer took second on a followup ground out to second baseman Tyler Wade, but then Jeff Brantley grounded one to Wade and this time it bounded off the glove of Wade rushing in from the back of the dirt, Wade playing chase with the ball until he finally speared it as he crossed in front of second base.
Then Jose Ramirez lined a single to right to score Zimmer. Clint Frazier, the youth who came to the Yankees in the deal making an Indian of Andrew Miller last July, picked it cleanly enough. But his throw to third in a bid to contain the scoring sailed two stories over third baseman Ronald Torreyes, who spun to the dirt trying futilely to stab at the ball, and Brantley scored as Ramirez took third.
Eleven pitches into his life as a Yankee, Gray was in the hole 2-0 through no fault of his own. “That’s just part of the game,” he told reporters after the Indians banked the half-gifted 5-1 win. “You make pitches. We were able to come out of the first inning with only two.”
Yankee manager Joe Girardi, whom some believe now manages for his job as well as a possible Yankee postseason journey, wasn’t quite so gracious. “That’s probably as bad a first inning that we’ve had all year,” he said soberly. “It leads to two unearned runs. It leads to extra pitches. Sonny threw the ball well. It’s unfortunate we gave up those runs.”
It’s more unfortunate on a night Kluber had no intention of letting the Yankees hit anything if he could help it. And Girardi knew it. “His stuff is dynamite. When he gives you a ball to hit, you better not miss it.”
Or, when he gives you a rare baserunner on the house. Jacoby Ellsbury somehow wrung a full-count walk out of Kluber in the second, but Kluber punched out Headley on three pitches before luring Torreyes into forcing Ellsbury—who’s no longer the road runner he was in Boston—at second for the side.
Frazier didn’t miss the ball Kluber gave him to hit to lead off the fourth, hitting a 1-1 service to the back of right field for a double and taking third when Didi Grigorius flied out on the first pitch to follow up. But Sanchez struck out swinging and Ellsbury grounded out to first.
By the time Sanchez drove one over the center field fence with one out in the seventh, the Indians had two more runs on the board, courtesy of Yan Gomes sending Carlos Santana and Brandon Guyer home with a double to the back of left field. Gray’s evening ended in favour of Chasen Shreve to open the eighth, and Francisco Lindor said welcome with one out by sending an 0-2 service into the left field seats.
Kluber and the Indians played with a slight handicap the Yankees and all of baseball knew. Relief maestro Andrew Miller is on the disabled list thanks to a case of landing-leg knee tendinitis, which may have factored into a recent outing or two that weren’t up to his normal standard.
The Yankees, too, played with a slight handicap. Girardi gave the night off to three lately-struggling bats, Aaron Judge, Todd Frazier, and Matt Holliday—the third still trying to re-horse after missing time with a viral infection. Struggling hitters shouldn’t be made to try righting their ships against the Corey Klubers, and Girardi’s kindness in that regard is surely appreciated.
But the rest of the boys shouldn’t be saying thank you by playing kick the can right out of the chute. Especially on a night Kluber pitched himself into rarefied company. His eleven strikeouts lined him up with Hall of Famers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Nolan Ryan as the only men ever to have struck out eight or better in twelve straight starts.
Sanchez’s bomb rudely interrupted a two-hit shutout in the making, but Kluber shook it off and kept the Yankees hitless for the final two innings. Gray’s record became 4-3 over his past seven starts, but his ERA in those games is a measly 1.43. That’s what the Yankees need from Gray. But they can’t afford to waste him the way they did Thursday.
Gray didn’t flinch. “If I can shut that sixth inning down,” he said, “it’s a completely different ballgame.” You have to be impressed with a fellow owning the net result even if he was given a two-run deficit to open that wasn’t even close to his fault.
Kluber and others like him are stingy enough without the Yankees handing their teams early gifts. And this was without Miller Time insurance on the night. Imagine how simple it won’t be when Miller’s back in the Indians pen.