The experimental aspect of the Cactus League was fully on display Saturday when Reds right-hander Sonny Gray tossed a changeup on a 2-0 count, only to see his rare offering deposited by the Royals’ Ryan McBroom over the center field fence at Surprise Stadium.
It was part of a third inning in which Gray surrendered three hits before leaving the game with a strikeout — also on a changeup.
“I just wanted to do it to see what would happen,” said Gray, who estimated that he threw only three changeups in 2019, an All-Star season in which he posted a 2.87 ERA.
In 2 1/3 innings on this afternoon, the Cincinnati starter allowed five hits and three earned runs while striking out three and walking one.
Several swings and misses were produced from another work in progress: throwing high strikes to get batters to chase.
“It has never been a super strength of mine to throw the ball up here,” Gray said, holding his hand shoulder high. “So I’ve been trying to do that and see how it works. … I’ve learned a lot about it.”
“Now I will sit down and figure out some counts I may do it in and some counts I may not do it in,” he said.
Fortunately for him, catcher Curt Casali has experienced the mad scientist mind of Gray since their days as Vanderbilt teammates.
“What do they call it? Chemistry?” Casali asked rhetorically. “I just get a feeling when he wants to throw one of those made-up pitches. He might give me a little signal. Or he might not, and it is my job to be ready for whatever he throws. Hopefully, it is within the realm of what I just called. We have a good relationship, a good connection, so it works out pretty well most of the time.”
After the 7-2 loss, Reds manager David Bell called Gray’s outing “just one of those days. A tiny step back. Next time, a tiny step forward. It’s to be expected.”
It was the third Cactus League start for the 30-year-old Gray, who is feeling healthy following surgery last Sept. 25 to remove bone chips in his right elbow.
Next up for Gray is a meeting with pitching coach Derek Johnson, who also coached him at Vanderbilt, to strategize for his last three spring training outings. Gray plans to throw 75 pitches next, and 85-90 pitches before the season begins on March 26.
“I am going to try to treat (the next one) like more of a game, rather than, ‘work on this, work on this,’” Gray said. “Just try to get it in competitive mode and put together a quality outing. Rather than an inning here, a batter here.”
Gray’s pitch count was extended in the first inning when center fielder Shogo Akiyama and right fielder Nick Castellanos misplayed a ball hit by Salvador Perez. With runners on first and third, Gray struck out the next two batters.
Gray is a candidate, along with Luis Castillo and Trevor Bauer, to start the opener on March 26 at home against St. Louis. Bell said he does not have a timeline to announce his starter for that game, adding, “there are some real reasons for that.”
Born and raised in Tennessee, Gray was heartbroken about the people who were killed and injured by tornadoes last Monday. Gray’s immediate family traveled to Arizona afterward, and he has been in contact with other family members and friends who were affected.
“It’s definitely tough,” Gray said. “But I did see that Nashville’s not accepting more volunteers because of the overflow — they got too may people trying to help. Nashville’s a very resilient city.”
NOTES: Relief pitcher/CF Michael Lorenzen is hampered by knee soreness, prohibiting him from playing in the field and batting. “No concern for his pitching, but we kind of eliminated … the position player activities just to make sure, because he’s so important to our bullpen,” Bell said. “We’ll add it back in, as soon as that’s 100 percent.” Several hours after his manager praised his bullpen value, Lorenzen struck out five in two scoreless innings. … 3B Eugenio Suarez, who hit 49 home runs last year, has progressed to hitting in the cages as he recovers from a Jan. 28 surgical procedure to remove cartilage in his right (throwing) shoulder. Suarez expressed hope to play in exhibition games before camp breaks. “I am feeling better every day, step by step,” Suarez said. “It is hard because I want to be with my teammates and opening day is around the corner.”
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