DETROIT – Sonny Gray squeezed his eyes shut and tensed his shoulders all the way up to his ears.
That's how he illustrated feeling in some of his recent starts — including two losses to the Rangers and the White Sox, when he didn't make it past the fifth inning and surrendered a combined 11 earned runs.
But taking the mound Sunday, Gray finally felt some of that tension ease. It showed in his pitching, as he tossed three hitless innings to start and gave up only two hits and one run through his six-inning, seven-strikeout outing. That performance helped the Twins to a 9-1 victory over the Tigers at Comerica Park and a two-game sweep in their first series after the All-Star break.
"I felt good. I'm just feeling a little more comfortable with our situation moving forward than I have been," Gray said. "… So that's a good thing."
The Twins (52-44) now have a three-game lead in the AL Central. The last-place Tigers (38-58) basically gifted the Twins a three-run lead in the first inning, as runs scored on a fielder's choice that didn't record an out, a fielding error and a bases-loaded hit by pitch. The Twins scored three more in the seventh inning with RBI doubles from Gio Urshela and Jorge Polanco, plus an RBI single from Luis Arraez. Gary Sanchez contributed a two-run double in the eighth before Jose Miranda drove in the final run in the ninth with Detroit third baseman Kody Clemens pitching.
Detroit's sole run of the game came in the fourth inning, when Gray hit Javier Baez with a pitch and walked Miguel Cabrera, and Eric Haase hit an RBI single. Such minimal damage earned Gray his first victory since June 27, when a lot was different.
Gray had a late start to his spring training ramp-up because of the lockout and his trade from Cincinnati. Two stints on the injured list early in the season didn't help. And just when Gray seemed primed to finally establish some momentum as the Twins' ace, pitching coach Wes Johnson announced his abrupt midseason departure to return to the collegiate coaching ranks.
June 27 was Gray's last start with Johnson in the dugout. Pete Maki has risen to that role now, and that's not the only personnel swap. Ryan Jeffers had always caught Gray this season, up until the catcher broke his thumb. Sanchez caught Gray once right after Jeffers was initially hurt, but Jeffers took the next two starts until the Twins discovered the full extent of his injury. So Sunday was the beginning of at least six to eight weeks of Sanchez behind the plate for Gray.
Gray said after the 6-5 loss to the Rangers on July 8 that he sensed something was amiss from his usual on-field presence. Call it vibe, mojo or confidence, but Gray was frustrated this nebulous characteristic had vanished.
But it returned a few days after the 12-2 loss to the White Sox on July 14, and Gray said he carried it through the five-day All-Star break. He stepped away from baseball and spent time with his family in his native Tennessee. He and his wife went out to dinner. He took his two young sons golfing and to a trampoline park. The family watched the Home Run Derby on TV until the kids fell asleep.
"We just kind of relaxed and enjoyed it, spent time at the house," Gray said.
Or, as Gray demonstrated, it felt a bit like exhaling a deep breath, unclenching his shoulders, opening his eyes and saying, "OK, that feels better."