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MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Bright lights upon him, Gray still finding his way

A's budding ace delivers again with four scoreless innings against Padres

Bright lights upon him, Gray still finding his way play video for Bright lights upon him, Gray still finding his way

PEORIA, Ariz. -- It didn't matter that the blazing sun was beating on several rows of empty blue seats. Or that the beach blankets were spread out along the grassy knoll beyond the outfield wall.

Heck, it didn't even matter that the dude up to bat was Padres pitcher Ian Kennedy, and that this was a seemingly meaningless spring exhibition at the City of Peoria Sports Complex.

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The count fell to 2-1 with two out and none on, and so Sonny Gray compelled himself to summon that mental acuity and tenacity that wowed a national audience five months back, when he outdueled Justin Verlander and tamed the Tigers in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, a contest that was as entertaining as any October endeavor last fall.

"I had the same exact mindset today that I had that game," Gray would say later, long after Kennedy grounded out to end the third of Gray's four nearly flawless innings of work. "You don't look at who you're pitching against. It could have been anybody up there."

This was Gray's third start in his first spring as a so-called established Major Leaguer, and he's still feeling his way through it. A year ago in A's camp, he pitched all of three innings on the big league stage before getting dispatched to the Minors. So all this talk -- about Gray's bouts with Verlander last October, about his candidacy for the Opening Day nod, about his status as one of the game's rising stars -- can be a little overwhelming.

Gray is simply still trying to figure out what works best for him. And on this seemingly tepid Tuesday in Peoria, the 24-year-old kid with a face that looks even younger got a good clue.

"Attack hitters, use the game plan," Gray said. "Really just attack it more like a game. That's what we were able to do."

Four innings, one hit, two strikeouts. Gray "got his work in," as they tend to do out here, but he didn't play around with his pitch selection the way he had in a rough -- and brief -- start against the D-backs last week, when he got torched for four runs in a lone inning of work.

"He's not a guy that looks like he's just getting his work in," manager Bob Melvin said. "He's a very driven kid. He wants to perform, whether it's a bullpen on the side or in a game."

The A's are driven to three-peat as AL West champs, and they are driven to prove they're capable of advancing out of the first round, whether it's against Verlander and the Tigers or some other, likely more-moneyed AL squad.

But while all the payroll-maximization, platoon-advantage-abusing policies apply once again in 2014, the A's enter this season with one obvious absence from previous efforts:

An ace.

Say what you will about Bartolo Colon's diet or the depth (or lack thereof) of his arsenal, but he had a been-there, done-that quality about him that was instrumental in leading this decidedly young staff. The A's opted against praying for the health of Brett Anderson and dealt him to Colorado. And while Scott Kazmir was a worthwhile veteran investment coming off a comeback season in Cleveland, he's also an injury risk among injury risks.

So in an organization in which young men grow up fast, the eyes naturally drift toward the stash of arms with youthful upside -- those of Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily, Tommy Milone, Josh Lindblom, Drew Pomeranz -- and wonder which will be the linchpin.

Gray is the best bet, not just because of what he did when entrusted with the October stage, but because of the polish of his arsenal when he employs it aggressively. From that generously listed 5-foot-11, 195-pound frame comes a fastball with bite and late movement and a confounding curveball. If Gray can gain confidence in a changeup that would be an especially worthwhile weapon against left-handers, you're looking at a kid who can live on the fringes of the zone and let the ball do the talking.

"When he lets it go, it seems like the ball has a mind of its own," said John Jaso, who has caught each of Gray's last two starts. "It's an uncomfortable thing to catch, so it's definitely an uncomfortable thing to hit."

Uncomfortable enough, evidently, that Gray seldom generates swings.

Gray's big league break-in was limited enough -- he made just 12 starts and accumulated just 77 innings, counting the two ALDS outings -- that we probably shouldn't read too much into the analytics involved. But it's certainly interesting that opposing batters swung at just 39.9 percent of his pitches, per FanGraphs.com.

To put that in perspective, only three other guys -- Jason Marquis (39.4), Lucas Harrell (39.3) and Jarred Cosart (38.9) -- induced fewer swings. Gray has work to do if he wants guys to chase -- his outside-the-zone swing percentage was the lowest of that 60-inning minimum group -- but he's right where he needs to be in terms of dictating the direction of the at-bat.

"I think the movement on his ball catches hitters off guard and freezes them," Jaso said. "I know, as a hitter, I want to swing at what I see every day out of the coach's hand in BP, you know? A nice four-seamer floating in there. So as soon as the ball starts going in a certain direction, I think hitters hesitate to swing a little more.

"With him, nothing is straight."

Gray was surprised to learn of the swing-rate stat, but he did attempt to offer his own explanation.

"I throw a lot of pitches that start out of the strike zone and end up in the strike zone," Gray said. "My curveball will start out of the zone a lot. Then I'll throw a four-seam that sometimes has a tendency to cut six or eight inches. Maybe they won't swing because it starts for a ball."

This deception extends to something as simple as a back-field bullpen session. What might have the look of mere target practice takes on what Gray himself described as a "realistic" tone, with pitches pounding the glove and cutting the corners and aimed at eliminating the imaginary hitter he envisions in the box. It's something he learned at Vanderbilt -- the appreciation for every trip to the mound, the importance of not taking any days for granted.

So throwing the changeup in unorthodox counts and generally taking a laid-back approach to the zone and the opposition, as Gray did in his first two spring outings, was unlike him. He didn't like the feel -- or the results, for that matter.

"That was the hardest thing for me the first two starts, was not knowing how to approach Spring Training," Gray said. "It's my third big league camp, but I threw like six innings in the first two combined. I didn't really know how to approach the camp."

On Tuesday, Gray learned a valuable lesson about the approach that works best for him. Maybe one day soon, he'll look back on days like this as important mileposts on his road to ace status.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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