OAKLAND -- Kendall Graveman got to two strikes on the Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon in the first inning and threw a two-seam fastball to the left-handed hitter. Blackmon watched as it started at his right hip and broke back across the middle of the plate, not so much as flinching at the called third strike.
It was the first batter Graveman faced Monday and set the tone for the rest of his night. The A’s right-hander threw seven scoreless innings in the A’s 7-1 win, his latest strong outing since being recalled from Triple-A in late May.
Graveman said he doesn’t usually go back and watch specific pitches he has made after he comes out of a game. He doesn’t even watch much video of himself the next day. But after leaving Monday night’s game, he made an exception for the pitch to Blackmon.
"I went back and looked at that one pitch, just to kind of seal that pitch in my mind," Graveman said.
"You really want to go and see what you did mechanically to feel a pitch. And if I can start that two-seam on the front hip of a lefty, and run it back on the plate as I did in the first inning there, that really makes it tough on a left-handed hitter. And that’s something I’ve got to continue to be more consistent with as I go forward."
That Graveman was focused on such specific improvements after his latest outing was a sign of how far he has come since the beginning of the season. Graveman was demoted to Triple-A after four starts in which he struggled just to get hitters out. Since returning, he has made eight starts in which he’s 4-2 with a 2.01 ERA.
Both Graveman and manager Bob Melvin have said that confidence gained in Triple-A has been a key to the right-hander’s improvement. He started the 2014 season in A-ball with the Blue Jays and debuted before the end of the year, and this spring he won a spot in the A’s rotation despite having no major-league starting experience. His rise, in short, was precocious, and he admitted he struggled in April adjusting to failure.
Now, however, Graveman is consistently getting hitters out with his repertoire of mainly sinker-cutter, and performing in the manner the A’s envisioned this spring. Melvin said that since Graveman rejoined the A’s, "he’s pitched as consistently as anybody we have in the rotation."
"You get a fifth starter pitching like that, it means that everybody’s contributing in the rotation," Melvin said. "And if you look at our numbers, everybody is contributing."
Indeed, the A’s rank second in the American League in starters’ ERA with a 3.13 mark, a tick behind the Tampa Bay Rays’ 3.11. So why are they still nine games under .500? Part of the reason has been an inconsistent offense. The A’s scored seven runs total while they were swept in three games by the Royals last weekend. They equaled that total Monday and hit three home runs -- though admittedly against a Rockies pitching staff that doesn’t match that of Kansas City.
The Rockies, 10 games under .500, have had the opposite problem: Their starting rotation ERA is second-highest in the majors at 5.07, nullifying some of the impact of an offense that entered Monday as the highest-scoring in the National League this month. Monday night, however, that offense could mount little against Graveman, who scattered five hits and three walks over seven innings.
The Rockies’ potent 3-4-5 of Troy Tulowitzki, Nolan Arenado and Carlos Gonzalez did reach base a total of five times. But Graveman limited the damage to singles and held the rest of the Rockies’ lineup mostly in check. Their biggest threat came in the sixth, when Tulowitzki and Arenado both singled with two outs. Graveman got Gonzalez to ground out weakly to first baseman Ike Davis to end the inning.
Davis said playing behind Graveman recently has "been great. He works fast, throws strikes. Lot of off-the-end jam jobs, because his ball’s moving all over the place."
Blackmon could attest to that after his first at-bat Monday. Graveman was asked after the game if he took confidence into the rest of the night from freezing a hitter on a pitch like that to start the game.
"Yeah," Graveman said with a grin. "I do."
* The A’s backed Graveman with three home runs -- two-run shots by Josh Reddick and Davis in the first inning, and a solo home run from Billy Butler in the fourth off Rockies right-hander David Hale. It matched their season-high for homers in a game, after they’d gone four games without hitting one.
There was a cautious optimism afterward that this could help jump-start the A’s offense and Davis and Butler in particular. Davis has just three home runs this season. Butler was riding an 0-for-15 partway into Sunday’s game but now has hits in four of his last five at-bats, including two extra-base hits Monday.
Butler and Davis were acquired by the A’s to provide power and run production. Going into Monday’s game, they had combined for seven home runs and 46 RBIs in 78 games, though Davis did miss nearly a month with a quad strain. Still, it hasn’t been all that the A’s were hoping for from two of their supposedly more prominent hitters.
"It’s nice to get your middle-of-the-order guys, and the guys that you expect to drive in runs, not only hitting the ball out of the ballpark, but getting you an early lead," Melvin said.
Davis, who homered at the Coliseum for the first time in an A’s uniform, said: "It’s not good if you haven’t hit a home run in your home park. So it’s good to get that out of the way."
As for his overall total, Davis argued it might be a bit misleading.
"I’ve got 12 doubles, I’ve hit the 388 (foot) sign twice," he said. "I could have five on the year (at home) and that’s not too bad … It’s definitely a work in progress. I’m going to hit home runs, I have the power to do it. It’s just all about getting in the right rhythm and actually letting the bat go."
Butler had hoped his 4-for-5 game against the Padres on June 17 might be the break-out game he’s been looking for, but he proceeded to go 1-for-19 over his next seven games. He has continued to say he feels he’s hitting better than his numbers indicate but needs to "catch a few breaks," as he did with a softly-hit single in the first inning Monday.
Butler snapped his 0-for-15 skid with a double against the Royals’ hard-throwing reliever Kelvin Herrera on Sunday and said that at-bat "just made me slow things down and realize that what I’m doing is right, you’ve just gotta trust the hands a little more." Along with his single and home run Monday, he doubled in the eighth inning and motored into third base on an overthrow to home plate.
"I know he’s been grinding on it, he wants to be the guy that we brought in here to drive in runs," Melvin said. "And you definitely saw that tonight. Three good at-bats."
* Reddick has been probably the A’s most consistent run producer aside from Stephen Vogt. His 11th homer of the season gave the A’s a 2-0 lead Monday, and Reddick said afterward the most surprising part for him was that it came on an inside pitch.
"I was telling the guys that’s the first pitch I’ve seen inside in it feels like a week," he said. "I was fortunate to get my hands inside of it and be able to go right to an inside pitch because I’ve been so used to seeing guys pitch me away that it was more of a surprise than something I expected."
The three homers came from the 4-5-6 spots in the A’s lineup, likely just as they would draw it up. Asked about the power potential of that lineup, Butler said he still believes, "the sky’s the limit."
"If we can put it together at the same time, this is a very dangerous offense," he said.
* Oddly enough, when this game began, it featured the players with the three longest active hitting streaks in the majors in the A’s Billy Burns, Arenado and Tulowitzki. Burns went hitless in four at-bats, snapping his streak at 16 games. Arenado now has the longest active streak at 16 games, while Tulowitzki has hit in 13 straight games and reached base in each of his last 28 games, a career-high.
* It isn’t uncommon at that stadium across the bay to see the seagulls descending on the field in the later innings, especially when a blowout has emptied the stands a little.
Having a flock land on the outfield grass in the Coliseum in the fifth inning when the sun is still out -- that’s a little weirder.
The birds brought some fringe entertainment to Monday night’s game -- and an element of added peril to the A’s players who were on defense at the time. Reddick and Burns were both seen placing their gloves on their heads briefly to guard against aerial attacks.
"Disturbing," Reddick said. "I was just trying to do the best I could to protect my hat or my face from getting pooped on … I don’t know what it was, but something was on the outfield grass and they seemed to enjoy it."
It’s debatable whether having a game-worn glove soiled by seagulls is better than having the same happen to a very replaceable hat. Still, Davis confirmed Reddick’s concerns as credible.
"There was poop on the infield," Davis said. "It was kinda scary."
* The series continues Tuesday night with A’s right-hander Sonny Gray (9-3, 2.09) opposing Rockies left-hander Jorge De La Rosa (4-3, 5.15). First pitch at 7:05 p.m.