When Sonny Gray was a 17-year-old senior at Smyrna (TN) High School, not only was he the star pitcher on the baseball team and the star quarterback on the football team, he was also the star of the school drama’s club’s production of “High School Musical.’’
Gray played Troy Bolton, the character created by Zac Efron ( I have to admit I’ve never seen it, so I’ll omit plot details or a critique), and a lot of 17-year-olds would have been nervous enough headlining a show that calls for singing, dancing, mugging and all sorts of Disney Magic.
But Gray upped the ante for opening night by inviting Tim Corbin, the baseball coach at Vanderbilt University, which was strenuously recruiting him, to come and see the show.
Corbin accepted, but not wanting to distract, or spook, his young prospect, chose a seat near the rear of the balcony, where he was reasonably sure he would not be seen.
And in the course of the performance, Corbin, as most busy adults do, glanced down to check his smartphone for messages. Seconds later he got the buzz that a text message had come in. He glanced down again, and there it was – a message from Sonny Gray, who was on stage at the time: “Coach, pay attention!’’
Corbin looked down at the stage and there was Gray, smiling up at him.
I recount the story to remind Yankee fans that if the Yankees lose Game 1 of the American League Division Series tonight to the Cleveland Indians, it will not be because Sonny Gray cannot handle the moment.
That much was proven back in 2013 when, as a 23-year-old, Gray outpitched Justin Verlander in his first post-season game, when he worked eight shutout innings, allowing just four hits, in a 1-0 Oakland A’s victory.
Incidentally, that game happened four years ago today.
The reason I bring up Gray’s apparent unflappability for this game is because of the rather obvious flappibility, if that’s a word, displayed by young Luis Severino in the wild-card game Tuesday night. Roughly the same age as Gray was in 2013, and probably blessed with more natural ability, Severino appeared to be overwhelmed by the moment. He looked to be visibly hyperventilating during his pre-game warmups and allowed home runs to two of the first four Twins hitters he faced.
Joe Girardi wisely, and bravely, got him out of there before the game got out of reach and the Yankees wound up winning it, 8-4, but the drain on the Yankees bullpen because of Severino’s ineffectiveness will no doubt be felt tonight.
And that is where another of Gray’s qualities – his ability to go deep in games – will help the Yankees tonight. Before leaving after just 4-2/3 innings in his last outing of the season, Gray had pitched at least six innings in 7 of his 10 Yankee starts, and one of the two Yankee complete games this season, a 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 12.
If Gray is going to lose tonight, it will be because of one of two things: The Yankees appalling tendency not to score for him; they have scored just 30 runs in his 11 starts, or fewer than three runs per game. Or, his disturbing penchant for giving up home runs in the final month of the season. After allowing just 10 homers in his first 21 starts of 2017, he surrendered nine in his final six starts, all in September.
So there may be signs of fatigue – the 162-1/3 innings he worked this season is 45 more than what he managed in his injury-plagued 2016 season – but I seriously doubt we will see signs of nervousness.
Gray is a young man with a remarkable ability to compartmentalize. The story of how he lost his father to a car accident when Sonny was 14 is well-known, but the details are both heartbreaking and revealing.
On the morning of August 26, 2004, Gray’s mother broke the news to him and his two sisters that their dad, Jesse, had been in a terrible accident while driving home from a night job his children did not even know he had. And even though his father was on life-support in a hospital, Gray chose to play quarterback for the Smyrna H.S. team that night, because as he told me, it was what his dad would have wanted him to do.
That night, Gray set a passing yardage record for the school – and then rejoined his family at the hospital, where the gut-wrenching decision was made to remove his father from life support.
Every August 26 after that, Coach Corbin sent Gray a condolence text to let him know he was thinking about him on a difficult day. But Gray had never pitched on the anniversary of his dad’s death until this past August 26, when he pitched seven innings of three hit ball against the Seattle Mariners to earn his first win as a Yankee.
“I was definitely pitching with a heavy heart out there today,’’ Gray told me after the game. “I’ve waited a long time to pitch on this date. To me, this is an important day, a memorable day. This is what me and my dad did. We grew up and we played together, football, baseball. I was the player and he was the coach. So it was cool for me to be able to do this today.”
That is the kind of competitor you want to hand the ball to for an important game, and right now, there is no more important game for the Yankees than Game 1 of a five-game series against the team with the best record in the American League.
Sonny Gray may not win that game for them, but you can be sure of this: He will not choke.