OAKLAND — Sonny Gray has been hearing the comparisons since his high school days in Tennessee. The references to Tim Hudson, another right-hander with a slight build and a big arm.
Fittingly, in the very ballpark where Hudson shined as a member of Oakland’s Big Three beginning in the late 90s, Gray dominated the Houston Astros with his fantastic fastball and snapping curve on the way to an impressive first major league victory.
Gray struck out nine in his home debut, and the Athletics used Nate Freiman’s two-run homer and four RBIs to avert a three-game sweep by the lowly Astros with a 5-0 victory on Thursday.
“I’ve been getting comparisons ever since high school, the short righty,” Gray said with a grin. “If you compare me to Tim Hudson, he’s one of my favorite pitchers, one of the greatest pitchers.”
Fellow rookie Freiman had a two-run double in the first, and then hit his third home run in the third with a drive to the left-field stands. He finished with four hits.
“Pretty special day for both those guys,” manager Bob Melvin said.
The 23-year-old Gray (1-1) allowed four hits and walked one over eight innings, throwing 118 pitches in his second career start and fourth big league appearance. Like so many other young pitchers in the A’s organization, the top prospect has been on the fast track to the majors since Oakland drafted him in the first round at No. 18 overall in the 2011 amateur draft.
Melvin asked Gray after the seventh how he felt, and the pitcher wanted to keep going.
“It was good for him to have the confidence in me to leave me out there,” Gray said.
It’s a difficult call for a skipper, especially when dealing with a young pitcher.
“With any of our guys, when they’re getting them out, they’re going to stay in,” A’s pitching coach Curt Young said. “We’re never going to get crazy with the pitch count. We thought it was doable and he ended up finishing a great outing. He’s just got nice composure in the two starts that he’s had. Nothing seems to bother him.”
Gray still had his best stuff in the late innings. He retired leadoff man Robbie Grossman on a called third strike in the eighth, and then left to a warm ovation from an announced crowd of 16,487 in his first home start at the Oakland Coliseum. Fans yelled, “Come on, Sonny!”
Dan Otero finished the five-hitter for Oakland’s 10th shutout.
Houston never found any kind of groove against Gray.
“He got us to expand the zone,” manager Bo Porter said. “He pitched a tremendous game.”
Freiman added singles to his impressive day in the fifth and seventh innings. He is batting .315 (40 for 127) since May 1 after batting .148 in April.
Oakland jumped on Erik Bedard (3-9) in a hurry. He dropped to 0-6 over eight starts since a win against St. Louis on June 26.
For the A’s, a sweep by the Astros would have been demoralizing. They already had lost two in a row to Houston each by one run, including in 11 innings Wednesday night.
Oakland pulled within 1 1/2 games of idle first-place Texas in the AL West, avoiding falling three back for biggest deficit since May 31.
After Chris Young beat out an infield single leading off the bottom of the first, Jed Lowrie hit an RBI double to stake Gray to a quick lead. Lowrie was the designated hitter rather than playing his usual shortstop spot as he nurses a sore lower right leg after being hit by a pitch Tuesday.
Freiman doubled three batters later to make it 3-0. He faced Gray in the minors last season and predicted big things.
“It was awesome,” Freiman said. “We were all, ‘This guy’s good.’ I’m not surprised.”
Bedard’s day only got tougher. The lefty allowed five runs and seven hits in 4 2-3 innings. He is winless in his last three outings against the A’s since a victory at Oakland for Seattle on May 27, 2009.
Houston’s Chris Carter hit a liner at ex-A’s teammate and shortstop Eric Sogard in the seventh and the barrel of Carter’s bat broke off, sailed through the air and struck Sogard in the left leg. He stayed in the game.
NOTES: Melvin said he didn’t intend to get tossed Wednesday night, calling it one of the most surprising ejections of his career. He argued a close call at third in the eighth inning of the 2-1, 11-inning loss. While he has confidence in his coaching staff, Melvin said: “I can’t get thrown out of that game. I feel bad. ... Everybody in the dugout has a job to do, and I wasn’t there to do mine.” ... A’s CF Coco Crisp will be re-evaluated Friday to determine whether he can play in the series opener with Cleveland, which would be three days after he received a cortisone shot in his ailing left wrist. ... The A’s are 18-20 against the division since May 10, compared to 34-14 against all other clubs. ... Umpire Angel Hernandez was booed by the crowd when announced before the game for his calls the entire series.