Sonny Gray knew he'd be pitching Sunday, though the struggling Oakland Athletics hurler's assignment just got considerably tougher.
Instead of a rehab start in Class A ball, Gray will come off the disabled list and attempt to deny the resurgent Houston Astros a three-game series sweep.
Initially slated to throw approximately 90 pitches for Oakland's California League affiliate in Stockton, Gray's plans changed when the A's scratched Rich Hill for the finale with a groin injury. The 2015 All-Star hasn't pitched since May 20 due to a strained trapezius muscle that may explain his poor season results.
"He's thrown three bullpens, he's thrown to hitters, we're just skipping one step," manager Bob Melvin said. "Physically he feels great, so it's just about getting out there and getting some results like we're used to seeing out of him. We're just skipping one short of what we originally thought the process would be."
Hill has been the A's best pitcher with Gray (3-5, 6.19 ERA) plagued by injury and control problems. He went 0-4 with a 10.38 ERA in five starts prior to hitting the DL, issuing 13 walks in 21 1/3 innings and failing to make it out of the fourth on three occasions.
Gray finds himself in a tough spot for his return, as Houston (27-30) has won 10 of 12 and is averaging 6.7 runs over its last seven. After recording a season-high 16 hits in Friday's 12-2 rout, the Astros overcame Jed Lowrie's tying home run with two outs in the ninth to earn a 6-5 win on Carlos Correa's RBI single in the 12th.
Houston improved to 6-3 in extra-inning games and 24-9 when scoring four or more runs.
"We put up our best at-bats when it matters," manager A.J. Hinch said. "I think we have a way about ourselves to where we don't over-swing in those moments."
Correa finished 3 for 5 with two RBIs and is batting .462 over a seven-game hitting streak. The reigning AL Rookie of the Year is 1 for 9 against Gray, but George Springer is 3 for 10 in the matchup and hitting .425 during an eight-game streak.
Lowrie continues to swing a hot bat for Oakland (25-31), which had won five straight before Friday. The former Astro is hitting .361 in nine games since returning from a shin injury.
Hits may be tough by come by against Houston's Lance McCullers (2-1, 4.79), who's held opposing hitters to a .183 average while going 5-2 with a 1.95 ERA in 12 career starts at Minute Maid Park. The 22-year-old yielded one hit - a solo homer to Mark Trumbo - while striking out 10 in five innings of a 4-2 win over Baltimore in his last home outing May 26.
McCullers did walk six and has piled up 16 free passes in 20 2/3 innings after issuing four while allowing three runs in five innings of Tuesday's 8-5 win at Arizona. The A's rank near the bottom of the majors in having drawn 129 walks.
The Astros have won six of seven over Oakland at home but have never swept a series from the A's at Minute Maid Park.