For as long as he can remember, Sonny Gray has thrown a sinking fastball. Its importance has only been amplified as he's moved up through the baseball ranks, and while it's still not perfect, it's pretty close to where he wants it to be.
On Wednesday, it was as sharp as it's ever been.
Oakland's No. 6 prospect allowed one run on four hits and two walks while striking out six batters over nine innings in the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats' 4-1 win over the host Fresno Grizzlies.
"This is probably the best start I've had in pro ball," Gray said. "I would say that my fastball was pretty efficient tonight and that, because they were being pretty aggressive, I was able to get ahead.
"My changeup was really good and my curveball was there when I needed it. They had been aggressive the first two nights, so I knew they would be tonight. I was able to keep the fastball down and change speeds and get them to swing early in the count and get soft contact."
It was the Tennessee native's second career complete game and the first time he's thrown more than eight innings. He scattered eight hits over seven innings in Midland's 5-0 win over Corpus Christi last July 18 the only other time he went the distance, but he said he relied more on his breaking pitches that day.
Gray retired the first 10 batters he faced Wednesday before issuing a one-out walk to Kensuke Tanaka in the fourth inning. Roger Kieschnick beat out an infield single to third base and Brett Pill singled on a line drive to left field to break up the shutout.
Cole Gillespie walked to load the bases, but Gray -- the club's second-best pitching prospect behind Dan Straily -- struck out Johnny Monell to escape the jam.
Fresno threatened again in the seventh when Pill doubled to left field and Gillespie reached on a single to third base. The Vanderbilt product induced a popup off the bat off Johnny Monell and an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play to erase the threat. Then he set the side down in order over the final two innings to complete the victory.
"The double play was very important," said Gray, who threw 60 of 94 pitches for strikes. "You want to keep your defense in the game all night. I would absolutely consider myself a guy who pitches to contact and ... I have four or five really good players behind me."
The victory helped Gray improve to 3-1 and lower his ERA to 2.61. It was also a solid bounceback effort for the 23-year-old who gave up a season-high eight hits to Salt Lake in his last start on Thursday.
"I've always felt that my sinker, my fastball, is what I always had growing up. That's the way it's always been. Last year [the A's] preached to me about fastball command and changing speeds with it. My fastball command has been OK, but it's not as good as I need it to be, so I focused on it. I was working on it in Spring Training and all this winter and I'm still getting better with it.
"Ground balls that got through against Salt Lake were hit more at the defense tonight. That's a credit to them, also to my catcher Stephen [Vogt]. I didn't shake him off tonight, we were on the same page from the get-go."
The River Cats got offensive support from designated hitter Shane Peterson, who was 2-for-4 with a two-run homer, and from center fielder Michael Choice, who hit his fifth longball of the year.
"Oh man," Gray said of the solo shot to left field."It was a very, very hard-hit ball. It was one of those balls when you come to the ballpark and you tell someone where it went, it's hard to believe. I would say he got all of it.
"When I was still in college, we played together on Team USA in the Tokyo Dome in Japan and he was hitting balls to the top corner of that dome. He's got a lot of power and we're lucky to have him in our lineup."