One chance. That’s all that most opponents have against Sonny Gray.
Some don’t even get the one, as was the case last Wednesday in Vanderbilt’s 2-0 victory over Arkansas in the opening round of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The Commodores’ No. 1 starting pitcher held the Razorbacks scoreless for seven innings despite the fact that he allowed seven hits. The key was that the sophomore right-hander yielded just one walk in addition to those hits.
Six days earlier in a game at Hawkins Field he also kept Arkansas off the board for seven innings. Of course, he pitched eight, and the three runs he surrendered that night (VU won 4-3) came in a single inning, the second, which included two of the three walks he allowed.
“His big innings come from one thing – multiple walks – that’s it,” coach Tim Corbin said. “Sonny’s tough to hit. If Sonny can overcome that little hiccup, which he will – I’ve seen that with young pitchers before – then people are not going to put four, five, six at-bats together off of him. That’s just not going to happen.”
Gray started 10 games against SEC teams (including the tournament) this season and had six victories, which made him the Commodores’ winningest pitcher in conference play.
He pitched a total of 65.1 innings in those contests and held the opponent without a run in 52 (79.6 percent).
Only four SEC opponents scored against him in more than one inning and none did so in more than two. South Carolina, for example, got all three of its runs in the third inning, the last of which was the result of back-to-back two-out walks, and won 3-2. Mississippi State scored four of five against him in the second, and Alabama scored all three against him in the fourth.
“It’s just like a snowball rolling downhill,” Gray said of his bad innings. “I have to learn how to put that away and stop it. Then I’ll be a lot better pitcher. … You just have to get the mindset back that you have every other inning, every other batter. You have to learn to have something that triggers you to refocus.”
Gray’s performance got the Commodores off to a good start at the conference tournament. They lost the next two, however, which made it their shortest appearance at that event since 2003.
Corbin said he is inclined to keep his rotation unchanged at this week’s Louisville Regional of the NCAA tournament with the hope that they again get off to a good start. That was not the case in 2009 when they fell to Middle Tennessee State in the opening game of the double-elimination event.
Vanderbilt opens Friday against Illinois State.
“We’ve changed it up once before,” Corbin said. “It didn’t work out. … Right now I think we’ll stick with what we’ve done.”
Beyond that, he can only hope that Gray avoids the big inning as he did in his most recent outing.
“I realize when it’s happening,” Gray said. “I’ve been working my tail off just to eliminate that.”
• Vanderbilt announced Tuesday a charter bus package for Saturday, the second day of play the Louisville Regional.
The package includes a bus ride and a grandstand ticket to the Commodores’ Saturday contest. Cost is $40. Soft drinks and snacks during the bus ride are courtesy of the National Commodore Club.
Departure time will be 6:30 a.m., if VU loses on Friday and 10:30 a.m. if VU wins on Friday.
Orders must be placed with the Vanderbilt ticket office by noon Thursday. A minimum of 25 people are required for the trip to take place.
(at Jim Patterson Stadium - Louisville, Ky.)
Game 1: No. 2 Vanderbilt vs. No. 3 Illinois State, 1 p.m.
Game 2: No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 4 Saint Louis, 5 p.m.
Game 3: Loser of Game 1 vs. Loser of Game 2, 11 a.m.
Game 4: Winner of Game 1 vs. Winner of Game 2, 3 p.m.
Game 5: Winner of Game 3 vs. Loser of Game 4, 11 a.m.
Game 6: Winner of Game 4 vs. Winner of Game 5, 3 p.m.
Game 7 (if necessary): Winner of Game 6 vs. Loser of Game 6, 5 p.m.