Sonny Gray proved you can go home again and can accomplish big things when you get there.
The Vanderbilt product and Smyrna, Tenn., native recorded a season-high eight strikeouts over six shutout innings Saturday night, pitching the Sacramento River Cats to a 5-2 victory over the Nashville Sounds at the ballpark he often visited as a kid.
More than 9,000 fans packed Greer Stadium, and many of them were rooting for Gray, who last pitched in Nashville during Vanderbilt's 2011 charge to its first College World Series appearance.
"It was awesome. The amount of support felt was truly mind-blowing," Gray said. "To know you have that many fans back home is really cool. I had a ton of family and a ton of friends here, but there were also tons of people from Smyrna and Vanderbilt. This was probably the most support I've had at a single game."
The A's No. 6 prospect worked around a season-high five walks and three hits as the Sounds put runners in scoring position in four of his six innings.
"Obviously, there were a lot at-bats that I wish would have gone better," Gray said. "I personally got myself into trouble a couple times, but I think being able to get out of jams is important. It was big to be able to make pitches I needed to make with runners in scoring position. I feel good about that, but walking five is not what any pitcher wants to do."
Gray was making his first start since Monday, but that outing was halted due to weather before he got through an inning. So his last official start was on May 1, when he tossed a complete game four-hitter. The long time between pitching didn't make things easy for him Saturday.
"Maybe that had something to do with it. ... I was able to throw my fastball down against righties really well, but it was erratic against lefties. But, you know, it's something I'm working on," Gray said. "Anyway, I know I need to attack the zone better my next time out, and that's what I'm going to do."
The 23-year-old right-hander knew he was getting out of trouble with strikeouts, but "I didn't know [the total] was eight," he said. "It's good because I gave up some hits and then I was able to get strikeouts. But if I could have gotten a lot of early contact and ground balls, that's what I would like to do instead. That's the thing -- I wouldn't consider myself a power pitcher. But I wasn't getting that soft contact tonight, so it's a good thing that I was able to strike out some guys."
Gray also credited right fielder Jeremy Barfield with preserving the scoreless outing. In the third, the Sounds' Caleb Gindl lined a single to Barfield and Scooter Gennett raced for home. Barfield nailed him with a stellar throw to end the inning.
"He's got a great arm, he's a great outfielder," Gray said of Barfield, who was playing his third game since a promotion from Double-A Midland. "I played with him last year, too, and I'm starting to count on him. Basically, any base hit to him when runners might be trying to get another base, you kind of expect to him to get them out. That was a great throw and [catcher Stephen] Vogt made a great tag, too. If you ask me, that was the key point in the game. It was awesome being able to put up those zeros after that."
Gray worked a perfect fourth and allowed two baserunners in the fifth and another in the sixth. The 2011 first-round pick has given up only two runs over his last 21 innings while piling up 19 strikeouts.
He benefited Saturday from a fourth-inning homer from A's No. 3 prospect Michael Choice, who'd been mired in an 0-for-17 slump but added an RBI single in the ninth. Three of Choice's seven homers have come in Gray's starts.
"I was not aware of that, but I'll definitely take it," Gray said. "He's one of the threats in our lineup. When he's swinging the bat well, it seems like the whole team plays better. That was great, when he hit that home run to give us a lead and get us going. It's great to see him come out of it and give us some momentum."
Brewers top prospect Tyler Thornburg fell to 0-4, despite striking out 10 over 5 2/3 innings. He was charged with two runs on seven hits and a walk. Gindl singled and scored a run, while Gennett chipped in an RBI double for Nashville.