Kendall Graveman, the A’s de facto ace recently, faced a kind of initiation for that title Saturday: He opposed Felix Hernandez in a game at the Coliseum, where the Mariners’ right-handed ace has dominated the A’s in his career.
It was an inopportune time for Graveman to have his worst start of the season. Graveman allowed a career-high eight earned runs – six in the first three innings – and the afternoon devolved for the A’s into a 14-3 loss that left them 21 games under .500.
“He was behind a little bit more, ball was running off the plate a little bit more, getting behind, and when he came in for a strike those guys swung the bat well,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “Just one of those games where he was a little bit off.”
Graveman, still, has been a bright spot for the A’s this year, the lone stalwart in a starting rotation that appears largely undefined going into next season. After Sean Manaea rejoins the rotation, likely Wednesday, the A’s will go to a six-man rotation as they evaluate pitchers – the healthy ones, anyway – for next spring.
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Raul Alcantara makes his second big-league start Sunday after a rocky debut last week. Jharel Cotton was impressive in his debut Wednesday, allowing one run in 6 2/3 innings. Daniel Mengden and Manaea are also among the 12 rookies who have pitched for the A’s this season, tying an Oakland record.
Chris Bassitt, Felix Doubront and Andrew Triggs, all on the disabled list, and Jesse Hahn, pitching in the minors, could also vie for rotation spots next spring. The A’s must decide this offseason whether to tender an offer to Henderson Alvarez, who did not pitch for them this season due to complications while returning from shoulder surgery.
“We have a lot of pieces potentially for next year,” Melvin said before Saturday’s game. “If all our guys are coming back healthy, including the Doubronts and Bassitts, we have a lot of depth and a lot of quality. It’s just keeping them healthy throughout the year.”
There is also the question of how erstwhile ace Sonny Gray will respond from his worst season in the majors. Gray was 5-11 with a 5.74 ERA before going to the DL with a forearm strain Aug. 7. Although he is scheduled to throw a flat-ground session and maybe off the mound Sunday, his return this season remains uncertain.
Looking to next season, Melvin said Gray is “not a guy that you worry about workload.” Melvin hinted Gray’s struggles this year may have stemmed partly from tinkering with the grip on his curveball, and that settling on a consistent grip could help him rebound.
“But I don’t think there’s anything physically we’re looking to do with Sonny,” Melvin said. “He’s the last guy you have to worry about as far as conditioning, arm care, those types of things. He’s a real hard worker. Just ended up being an off-season for him.”
With Gray sidelined and Rich Hill traded, Graveman assumed the mantle of staff ace and had compiled a 9-3 record and 3.18 ERA in 18 starts before Saturday. While Hernandez stymied Oakland’s hitters, Graveman surrendered a season-high 12 hits, none louder than two doubles by his nemesis, Nelson Cruz.
Seattle’s designated hitter hit a 111 mph double to center field in a two-run first inning and a 109 mph liner off the base of the left-field wall in the third that put the Mariners ahead 6-0. Cruz also singled in the fifth and is 10-for-15 lifetime against Graveman.
“I definitely didn’t feel bad at all,” Graveman said. “I’d chalk it up to just locating. I felt good out there; the ball was still coming out the way I wanted it to.”
Graveman, the only member of the A’s Opening Day rotation who has not been on the DL, has now thrown 168 innings, surpassing his high of 167 1/3 in the minors in 2014. But his velocity has climbed in the second half as his numbers – Saturday aside – have improved, which would indicate he is not tiring.
Graveman will have an extra day before his next start with the A’s adding a sixth starter, and Melvin said the A’s could space out his remaining starts “if we feel like an extra day is important to him. But I know he wants to get all the way through (the season) and he wants to pitch a lot of innings.”
After missing the final month of last season with an oblique injury, Graveman said it was a priority, starting from spring training, this year to pitch 180-plus innings.
“Spring training, (third-base coach) Ron Washington comes up and says, ‘Hey, the most important thing is you get innings and keep our team in ballgames the majority of the time,’” Graveman said. “Just to prove that I can go through September healthy – last year we had the little hiccup with the oblique injury – but just continue to battle and stay in the weight room and stay healthy for the next three or four starts is going to be key.”