Sonny Gray debunks need for playoff experience with stellar outing

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The ALDS Game 2 narrative between the Tigers and Athletics involved the experienced ace in Justin Verlander and the rookie in Sonny Gray. Verlander, with over 70 post-season innings under his belt, would be calm, cool, and collected with all the TV cameras pointed in his direction. Gray, who spent most of the year with Triple-A Sacramento, would be  in the pressure cooker for the first time in his career, certainly a burden for a 23-year-old.

Gray flipped that narrative on its back with eight stellar innings of work against the American League’s #2 offense, averaging just under five runs per game during the regular season. He was rarely in trouble, and when he was, he nearly perfectly executed his pitches — a mid-90’s fastball and a dazzling curve — to escape unharmed. The right-hander held the Tigers to four hits, all singles while walking two and striking out nine, matching the seasoned Verlander pitch-for-pitch in the most important game of his career.

The pitch of the game for Gray came in the bottom of the eighth. Don Kelly led off the inning with an infield single, then moved to second base on a ground out by Jose Iglesias. With the winning run in scoring position and Austin Jackson (who hit .300 last year) at the plate, Gray fed him a steady diet of curve balls. Jackson saw six of them consecutively, falling behind 0-2, working it back to 3-2, and ultimately striking out looking. Torii Hunter then popped up to end the eighth inning, Gray’s final frame before Athletics manager Bob Melvin turned to his bullpen.

The Athletics needed Gray to be exactly this good because Verlander was on point from the start. Verlander did not allow a base runner until the fifth inning after recording two outs. Like Gray, Verlander did not surrender an extra-base hit. He allowed four hits, walked one, and struck out 11 batters in seven innings of outstanding pitching.

Had Gray relented even once — and no one would have blamed him if he did — the Athletics would have been feeling the pressure, just like they did from the start of Game 1 against Max Scherzer. And they might not have had the chance to walk off in the bottom of the ninth, the way they did thanks to Stephen Vogt’s bases loaded, no out, walk-off RBI single against Rick Porcello. Thanks to Gray, the Athletics are ecstatic as they board their plane en route to Detroit for Game 3 on Monday.

Indians hitting coach Van Burkleo opts out due to COVID-19

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CHICAGO — Cleveland Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo has opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns about contracting the COVID-19 virus.

Team President Chris Antonetti said Friday that Van Burkelo had been contemplating his departure for some time because of a personal high-risk condition and for his family. The Van Burkleos have a special needs child.

Antonetti said the challenges of traveling and the lack of room in road ballparks may have been the tipping point for the 57-year-old Van Burkleo, who is in his eighth season with the club. He had been under fire for Cleveland’s early offensive struggles.

“We are fully supportive of Ty’s decision,” Antonetti said, adding Van Burkleo remains employed by the team. “He’ll continue to provide support remotely and contribute any way he can from home.”

Antonetti said Alex Eckelman will join the staff to assist Victor Rodriguez and Justin Toole working with the Indians hitters.

Antonetti said the team spoke with all its coaches and staff before the season about working amid the inherent risks from the coronavirus. He said Van Burkleo was committed, but that the wear and tear of the protocols, particularly on the road, may have made it impossible for him to feel safe.

Van Burkleo’s departure further complicates several issues with the Indians’ coaching staff.

Manager Terry Francona will miss his sixth straight game Friday while addressing a gastrointestinal issue he’s combated for months. The 61-year Francona did not make the trip to Chicago and it’s not yet known if he’ll be back next week.

The Indians are off Monday before opening a two-game series at home against the Cubs.

First-base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. has been filling in for Francona. Earlier this week, third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh left his regular spot to help Alomar in the dugout. Cleveland has been without bench coach Brad Mills all season after he decided to spend time with family following the tragic drowning of his grandson this offseason.

Antonetti acknowledged the season has already presented numerous hurdles.

“We’ve had to deal with a lot of things and a lot of adversity over the course of the last few months and that’s been highlighted in the last week or so with some leadership challenges,” he said.