Reminded Saturday morning that Felix Hernandez had not been quite the enigma for his hitters this season as in years past, A’s manager Bob Melvin grinned and replied: “Yeah, but he’s gotten off the hook somehow.”
Despite stringing together a few rallies against Hernandez in their first two meetings this season, the A’s lost both games, and in the early innings Saturday, the Mariners’ ace was practicing his escape act yet again. The A’s put six of their first eight hitters on base but came away with one run. They left nine men on base through six innings as Hernandez seemed to pitch better the more pressure he faced.
Hernandez ultimately allowed 12 baserunners in seven innings and kept all but two from scoring – but this time, the A’s did not allow him to wriggle away entirely. Rookie right-hander Kendall Graveman outdueled Hernandez with seven scoreless innings as the A’s beat the Mariners 2-0 at O.co Coliseum. It marked Hernandez’s first loss in Oakland since Sept. 19, 2008; he had gone 13 consecutive starts without one.
“It feels good,” Melvin admitted afterward, “especially here at home. He’s just handed it to us here at home. It’s not like he pitched poorly today; he didn’t have his best stuff and wriggled out of a bunch of jams. But now he’s 0-1 in the last one start he’s had here.”
That is largely because of Graveman, who was 17 years old when Dana Eveland became the last starter to hand Hernandez a loss in Oakland. Graveman said he “grew up watching (Hernandez) on ‘SportsCenter’ every five days” and that it was “an honor to step on the same rubber as he did today.”
In doing so, Graveman recorded his sixth consecutive start of at least seven innings with two or fewer runs allowed – the longest such streak by a rookie pitcher in Oakland history.
Both starters got into trouble in the first inning. Graveman gave up a double to Austin Jackson with one out, then walked Robinson Cano. But with Nelson Cruz batting, Jackson tried to steal third on a two-strike pitch and was thrown out by catcher Stephen Vogt. Graveman then struck out Cruz to end the inning and did not allow another runner into scoring position until the seventh.
In the bottom of the inning, Billy Burns lined Hernandez’s first pitch for a single, Vogt drew a walk, and Ben Zobrist shot a single into left field to score Burns. Hernandez held the A’s to one run and then escaped a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the second inning, but the A’s already had given Graveman the support he would need.
Since returning in May from a month-long demotion to Triple A, Graveman has seemed to get progressively better, posting a 1.25 ERA over his last five starts. Melvin said that Saturday’s outing was “maybe the best mix (of pitches) we’ve seen out of him.” Graveman, who relies primarily on a sinker-cutter combination, agreed he has felt freer to expand his repertoire as he has become more familiar with catchers Vogt and Josh Phegley.
Vogt caught Graveman on Saturday and said that, as a pitch caller, “It’s kind of fun because you have every pitch to work with in any situation.” He credited Graveman with getting ahead of the Mariners’ hitters in counts and staying aggressive, which allowed him to record faster outs and keep his pitch count to a manageable 109 in seven innings.
Cano and Cruz started the seventh with consecutive singles, and with the A’s nursing a one-run lead, Melvin jogged out of the dugout toward the mound. The Mariners had two left-handed hitters due up, and the A’s had left-hander Drew Pomeranz throwing in the bullpen. Graveman said a visit from Melvin typically has signaled his exit from the game.
“He’s never really given me the option to kind of stay out there,” Graveman said. “Every time he’s come out, it’s been, ‘Hey, good job,’ (and) someone else comes in.”
This time, however, Melvin left Graveman in to face Kyle Seager, who flied out to the warning track in his previous at-bat. Seager lifted a harmless fly ball to left field. Seth Smith then hit a chopper that first baseman Ike Davis speared on a dive, flipping to Graveman at the bag for the second out. And Graveman, facing his final hitter regardless, got Mark Trumbo to loft a high cutter to right field, ending the inning.
Graveman said the inning was “a growing experience for me” and that he was cognizant of the small margin of error against Hernandez. In 21 career starts in Oakland, Hernandez now has a 2.63 ERA and 10-3 record – but he remained tied for the most consecutive starts by an opposing pitcher without a loss at the Coliseum. Mike Flanagan also had 13 straight from 1977 to 1984.
“I mean,” said Vogt, “anytime you beat Felix, in any building, anywhere, it’s huge.”