OAKLAND - There are some starts where Sonny Gray would take a bad first inning and chalk it up as a mulligan, content to move on with the belief that things will be better next time out.
After Tuesday night's outing, he wasn't letting himself off the hook so easily. Fielding questions from reporters about a five-run first that doomed the A's in an 8-4 loss to Houston, Gray clearly was bothered by his inability to shut off the Astros' rally at just one run after he coaxed a double play from Carlos Correa. Brian McCann, Yuli Gurriel and Alex Bregman followed with run-scoring hits as Gray allowed the most runs by an Oakland pitcher in the first inning this season.
"I don't know, I just kind of got away from the game plan a little bit and started to lose some balls over the middle a little bit more," Gray said. "After that, I was able to battle through a couple innings and get through five, but I really dug us a hole there in the first. And against a team like that and an offense like that, to give them a five-spot in the first, it's tough on the rest of the guys."
Gray held the Astros off the board over his final four innings, so there was that silver lining in regard to his start. But the tone of Gray's comments after the game brought some flashbacks to 2016, when the right-hander spent the season searching for answers to his struggles on the mound.
He's made some mechanical adjustments over last year. Overall his stuff is better. Gray feels it is, and it's clear to those who have watched him. But the big inning still haunts him, and once things start sliding backwards in an inning, he has trouble putting the brakes on.
"For numerous starts, I've been good for four or five innings and then have one inning where everything's kind of escalated," Gray said. "Going forward, I'm going to have to figure this out, whether it's getting off the mound and slowing myself down … And a lot of times it's been with two outs, so I've gotta find a way to shut the inning down when I get to two outs."
"Obviously he just was not making the pitches he wanted to," catcher Stephen Vogt added. "For the most part, they weren't bad pitches. They were just up and they jumped on him pretty good."
Since returning from a season-opening stint on the disabled list for a strained lat muscle, Gray's ERA is 4.84 over 10 starts. He's racked up impressive strikeout numbers, which has put him near the top of the list of starting pitchers mentioned in the trade rumor mill. But contending teams who are scouting Gray, and you can very much count the Astros among the teams that could make a play for him, will want to see better results than Tuesday's if they're to part with the kind of return package the A's will want for the 2015 All-Star.
That's the subplot each time Gray takes the mound between now and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
"My stuff is there," Gray said. "Moving forward it's gonna be a mentality thing. I've got to figure it out."