Aaron Boone emerged from the dugout with one out in the third and in a moment of hesitancy the full house at Yankee Stadium hovered, confused whether to cheer his presence or get an early start on booing Sonny Gray’s disappearance.
There were no mixed messages after Boone took the ball. Gray endured what played like a three-mile walk back to the home dugout. The Yankee starter was bathed in the kind of Bronx derision saved for Carl Pavano or A.J. Burnett — a throaty serenade of distaste, dismay, disappointment.
“I get it,” Gray said. “If I were out there, I would boo me even louder.”
Gray can’t pitch well in The Bronx or against Boston, and when it comes to being a Yankees starter that would be the equivalent of not being able to dance or sing, yet auditioning for a Broadway musical.
Gray was Brian Cashman’s big rotation acquisition at last year’s trade deadline and only has intensified the need for the Yankees general manager to do better this time around. Cashman already has checked in on Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, J.A. Happ and pretty much any available starter he sees helping the Yankees outdo Boston in the AL East and then thrive in the postseason.
Because how can you believe Gray can fill that role? He was beat up by the Red Sox and then pummeled himself afterward calling his outing “embarrassing” and saying, “I feel like we are the best team in baseball four out of five days and then I do that. It sucks.”
What he did was put the Yankees in a six-run hole against Chris Sale at the top of his game in what would become an 11-0 cakewalk that allowed Boston to both recapture first place and revive lingering concerns about Gray.
Before Boston tied this series, Boone insisted Gray was “a different guy” from the one who surrendered six runs in three innings in April in Fenway. Gray had a 3.23 ERA in his first five June starts and Boone explained, “I feel like he’s much more equipped to be successful against them tonight.”
That looked prescient — for two batters. Gray opened throwing his fastball hard and aggressively to retire Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi. The Stadium was loud and happy, pumped by the Yankees’ 8-1 victory Friday night and this strong start. But Gray quickly unplugged the enthusiasm and joy. The next 14 Red Sox would go 7-for-11 with two walks and a sacrifice fly to oust the righty after 2¹/₃ innings.
The key at-bat was J.D. Martinez winning an eight-pitch battle after the two outs in the first, reaching on an infield single. The devastating at-bat was Rafael Devers launching a hanging curve for an opposite-field grand slam to left. Both had two strikes on them as Gray struggled in this game again with finishing off hitters and long counts.
By the time he was lifted, Gray had an 8.25 ERA in eight 2018 home starts. That would outdo the current Yankee worst in at least eight starts, the 6.49 by Pavano in 2005.
The Yankees have lost all four of Gray’s starts these past two years against the Red Sox. His ERA of 9.35 is the third worst (minimum four starts) by a Yankee against Boston, behind Jose Contreras (16.43) and Andy Hawkins (14.44) and ahead of Sidney Ponson (9.17) and Burnett (7.29).
Contreras and Burnett stand out as starters who seduced the Yankees with great stuff, just as Gray did. The Yankees eventually traded Contreras and Burnett, in part because of their inadequacy against Boston.
“I haven’t beaten a lot of teams since I have been here, not just the Red Sox,” Gray said.
Boone, as you would expect, said he believes that Gray can succeed in The Bronx and against Boston and that “I want him to be the frontline starter he is capable of being.” Joe Torre said similar stuff about Contreras, Joe Girardi about Burnett — right up until they were dispatched.
Whether the Yankees export Gray (a free agent after next season) is uncertain. But the pressure is on to import another starter. The Yankees have an ace in Luis Severino. CC Sabathia has been good, but the concerns about injury are never far away because of his wear and mileage. Masahiro Tanaka may be back in a week, but for how long and at what level?
Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga are rookies and Loaisiga, in particular, will have a restrictive innings cap. Justus Sheffield might be an option, but who knows?
Gray was acquired to be a No. 2 starter and instead resides as the Yankees’ No. 1 problem. He wilts in The Bronx, crumbles at the sight of the Red Sox. The Yankees have three more series vs. Boston after the trade deadline. With or without an addition, can the Yankees actually trust Gray to pitch in any of them with the stakes this high?
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