HOOVER, Ala.—With a parade of elite power arms scheduled to take the mound in the first day of the SEC tournament, Regions Park was the place to be for scouting heavyweights Wednesday. I confirmed the presence of at least 12 scouting directors, at least one general manager and several high-level executives, in addition to the dozens of area scouts and crosscheckers on hand.
After a long day that started at 9:30 a.m. and included strong outings by juniors Jimmy Nelson, Drew Pomeranz and Anthony Ranaudo, the scouting contingent was considerably thinner by the time the late game between Vanderbilt and Arkansas started. Those who remained were treated to the most electric stuff of the day, courtesy of Vandy righthander Sonny Gray—just a sophomore, and not draft-eligible.
Gray turned in one of his finest starts of the season in a 2-0 win against the Hogs, striking out eight and walking just one over seven-plus shutout innings, scattering seven hits. His explosive two-seam fastball sat in the 93-95 range for his entire outing, peaking at 96 several times, and his power curveball ranged from 81-86 mph. He also mixed in a handful of changeups around 84.
Commodores pitching coach Derek Johnson said Gray's stuff wasn't actually as explosive as it was against the Razorbacks last Thursday, when he struck out nine and allowed three runs over eight innings in a 4-3 win. But he was better the second time around against Arkansas, which rested banged-up stars Zack Cox and Brett Eibner.
"Ironically, he said he didn't feel that great tonight," Johnson said. "He felt like he didn't have as much stuff, and maybe that's a good thing. It may be one of those deals where the more juice he has, maybe the more erratic he becomes. But I thought his command was better than last week. I think the main thing is he has a tendency to overthrow, and he didn't do that tonight—he stayed within himself. The kid's got really good stuff, he doesn't need to have better stuff. So I think maybe more than anything else, it was just that he commanded his mind not to overthrow and it worked out well for him."
Gray and Johnson both agreed that the key Wednesday was an increased reliance on the fastball.
"I think tonight they saw my breaking ball a little bit better than they did last Thursday," Gray said. "So I got with D.J., and we had to change it up. I started using my changeup more and throwing my fastball to both sides of the plate. That was the game plan to begin with, but it just made throwing the fastball on both sides of the plate that much more important."
Gray's stuff has never been in question. He had some of the best stuff in the 2008 draft class out of high school, and it never dropped off over his first two years at Vanderbilt. But Johnson said Gray has tended to have "one hiccup inning" where he loses his command, and he avoided that tonight, even when the Razorbacks threatened.
"We didn't have a problem getting to two strikes and we didn't have a problem getting to two outs," Gray said. "They fought their butts off, you've got to give them credit for that, and they kept getting runners on base. But it was that one pitch we executed tonight with runners on base, and I think that was the story of the game. We left a lot of men on base, and they left a lot of men on base as well, so I think you've got to give credit to pitchers on both sides tonight. Pitching out of jams is what baseball's about."
Gray is getting better and better at escaping trouble, a manifestation of his growth as a pitcher. This time next year, all those scouting directors will be glued to their seats when Gray takes the mound.
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