By Matthew Harrington
All eyes were focused as two opposing aces took the hill Monday night at Globe Life Park in Arlington, with the visiting Oakland Athletics countering Texas Rangers star Yu Darvish with young phenom Sonny Gray in the battle for first place in the American League West. The A’s (16-10)proved victorious behind their young arm, securing a 4-0 decision to open up the three-game series against the 2010 World Series runner-ups and take their place atop the division standings.
For Darvish, a pattern of struggles against the A’s plagued the Japanese sensation once again in one of his worst starts since exploding on the Major League scene in 2012. His foe in green and gold produced an earmarked performance which, to date, goes down as Gray’s greatest outing in his blossoming career pegged for superstardom.
The Swinging A’s knocked Darvish around early, scoring four runs and knocking the Rangers All-Star out of the game after 3 1/3 innings. Darvish retired seven of the first eight batters he faced, but his lack of command of the strike zone forced him out of the game trailing 4-0 with 83 pitches thrown. Monday marked just the second time in 66 career starts Darvish failed to pitch through five innings, with his loss to Gray being the shortest appearance of his career. Darvish (1-1, 2.59) is now 1-7 against Oakland with a mortal ERA of 4.73 all-time.
Gray took the decision of who pitches the ninth inning out of manager Bob Melvin’s hands, pitching his first ever complete game. Rumors had swirled that Jim Johnson, relegated to middle relief after a pair of rough outings to open the season, may see a return to the closer’s role. The A’s starter ensured the speculation would continue on another day, finishing his masterpiece himself to open the three-game series in Texas. Gray needed 108 pitches, 73 for strikes, to dispatch the Rangers (15-11) handedly Monday night. Gray (4-1, 1.76) picked up six strikeouts with only one walk while allowing only three hits including a generous scoring decision on catcher Robinson Chirinos’ single in the sixth inning.
Athletics third basemen Josh Donaldson delivered the big blow of the day, ripping a two-run single with the bases loaded in the third for a 2-0 lead with one out. Catcher John Jaso greeted Darvish with a single to open the next inning before coming home on Josh Reddick’s line-drive triple to right in the following at-bat. First basemen Daric Barton scored Reddick with a sacrifice fly for the fourth and final A’s run. Darvish faced one more batter, walking Eric Sogard before turning the game over to Aaron Poreda. Poreda finished the inning before starter Nick Martinez came out of the bullpen to pitch the final five scoreless frames.
The Rangers best chance to touch Gray up for a run came in the sixth inning after Chironos reached first with one out on a play scored a hit after shortstop Jed Lowrie deflected the ball to Donaldson at third base. Chironos advanced to second on a wild pitch with Michael Choice at the plate. Choice lined out, but Chironos moved to third on another wild pitch with Elvis Andrus at the dish. Andrus grounded out to third to end the scoring threat.
The Rangers only other at-bat with a man in scoring position came with Leonys Martin at second base after a single and a Chirinos hit-by-pitch with one out in the bottom of the third. Gray induced a grounder from Choice on an 0-1 count that Lowrie scooped up at short, stepping on second base for the force out before firing the ball to first to complete the twin killing and escape unscathed.
The A’s continue game two of the three-game set Tuesday evening, sending Texas native Scott Kazmir to the mound looking to remain undefeated on the season and add to a now one-game division lead over the team in the opposing dugout. The Rangers counter with lefty Martin Perez, author of a three-hit complete game shutout of his own against Gray and the A’s at O.Co Coliseum last Wednesday.