OAKLAND -- A’s right-hander Kendall Graveman is a ground-ball pitcher who Saturday was not getting ground balls. Of the 25 batters he faced in the A’s 9-3 loss to the Houston Astros, Graveman induced just three ground-ball outs. And most of the nine hits he gave up were hit hard on a line or in the air.
The result was another messy line for Graveman -- 4 2/3 innings, nine hits, six runs, all of them earned -- who has not completed five innings in three of his four starts this year and has an ERA of 8.27. The problem was the same one Graveman has battled throughout the month: The downward sinking and cutting action on his pitches that he uses to get ground balls, and that was effective during spring training, was missing Saturday.
Replacing it was lateral movement, which, as catcher Stephen Vogt put it, "(turns) those ground balls to foul balls." Graveman also made some location mistakes against Houston -- none more costly than the 1-0 cutter he left over the plate in the second inning to Jose Altuve, who hit it for a three-run home run that gave the Astros a 4-0 lead.
"Just getting on the side of the baseball again, not getting on top of it," Graveman said after the game. "Been working hard the past two weeks to get that movement back and it’s just not showing up. It’s there one pitch, not there the next."
Graveman took responsibility for the team’s loss Saturday -- "That one’s on me" -- and was clearly taking his struggles hard. Vogt took him aside for a brief talk and later said Graveman seems to be "just a tick off" with his pitches.
"You saw it today, he made so many quality pitches, and then all of a sudden one mistake and he gets hit," Vogt said. "There’s a lot of guys on this team that have contact fastballs that aren’t getting (soft) contact on them right now and that shows you they’re not getting the depth on the fastball. And Kendall’s one of them. He’s a hard-working kid and he’s going to be just fine if he can let himself just relax and not over-press."
Vogt acknowledged that can be difficult for a player in Graveman’s position. Graveman, 24, is starting in the majors for the first time. A year ago at this time, he was pitching in A-ball. Vogt said Graveman is likely experiencing the difficulties of struggling at the big league level for the first time, trying to "over-correct" when things go wrong.
"Being consistent in the major leagues is hard, and I think he’s going through just a tough time right now," Vogt said. "He works hard, no doubt the effort’s there. Everything’s just a tick off right now."
Manager Bob Melvin said he did not want to discuss whether Graveman would make his next scheduled start, but acknowledged Graveman’s struggles are "a little bit of a concern now." After allowing eight runs (seven earned) in 3 1/3 innings in his A’s debut April 9, Graveman threw 5 1/3 shutout innings in a win in Houston, but followed that with a three inning start in Los Angeles in which he threw 73 pitches.
"He’s a command guy that usually isn’t in the middle of the plate, usually on the corners with subtle movement," Melvin said. "And he’s having a tough time finding that in the fashion that we saw in spring training."
Graveman said he believes his issues are mechanical, but he’s having trouble finding the right adjustments to make. He said he felt good in the bullpen before Saturday’s start but it didn’t carry over into the game.
"It’s just something that I’ve got to go back to work," Graveman said, "continue to work and not give up."
* The A’s as a team, meanwhile, continue to be maddeningly inconsistent. In their eight wins this season, they have outscored opponents by a total of 62-6. In 11 losses, they’ve been outscored 72-28.
Pitching wasn’t their only issue Saturday. The A’s went 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position. And in the seventh inning, they committed two errors on dropped fly balls in the outfield -- giving them a majors-leading 19 errors for the season in 19 games.
"We’re not playing very well here the last five games or so," Melvin said. "Even before (Saturday), we lost some close games where we were getting consistent at-bats, getting guys on base, we were swinging the bats well. And at this point we’re not doing anything too terribly right."
The A’s were shut out until the seventh by Astros right-hander Scott Feldman, off whom they scored eight runs on 10 hits in five innings two weeks ago in Houston. Melvin said it looked like Feldman adjusted well to the game plan the A’s hitters had in the meeting on April 13.
"You didn’t see as many curveballs -- more cutters, went a little harder than soft," Melvin said. "He made the adjustment. But it doesn’t seem like we’re getting the consistent at-bats where, even if we don’t get hits, we’re making a guy work and getting some guys on, and getting in decent counts. That’s not what we’re doing right now."
* One bright spot for the A’s was the major-league debut of Max Muncy, who collected his first hit with a line drive single off Feldman in the seventh. Muncy then recorded his first big-league takeout slide to break up a potential double play, upending Astros second baseman Jose Altuve before Altuve could get off a throw.
That allowed Josh Reddick to score on the play, and extended the inning for Eric Sogard to hit a two-run triple that made it an 8-3 game. Muncy also covered some ground while making a catch of a pop-up in the Coliseum’s vast foul territory, and Melvin said, "All in all, he represented himself pretty well."
"I felt good," Muncy said. "Obviously the result wasn’t what we were looking for, but for me it was fun to be out there."
Melvin joked before the game that Muncy’s operating on an hour of sleep -- he learned he was getting called up around 2 a.m., and hopped a flight from Nashville -- might help settle Muncy’s nerves about his debut. It didn’t look like he had many: Muncy worked a pair of 3-1 counts and lined a 3-1 cutter to center off Feldman in the seventh.
"I wasn’t too antsy to get out there and swing the bat," Muncy said. "I was just looking for a good pitch and that’s how it went."
* After Graveman was knocked out, Chris Bassitt made his A’s debut and covered the final 4 1/3 innings to preserve the bullpen a day after the A’s 11-inning loss. Bassitt was recently called up from Triple-A, where he was working on pitching inside to lefties by moving to the first-base side of the mound. Melvin said he noticed a difference.
"It took him a little while to get into his groove, and it looked like once he did it seemed all his pitches were working pretty well," Melvin said.
Bassitt did allow a ninth-inning home run to George Springer on a pitch that Melvin said "probably got a little too much of the middle of the plate." Springer showed some muscle by driving it over the wall in right-center field.
* The A’s will try to salvage a game in this series behind left-hander Drew Pomeranz (1-2, 4.24) in the finale Sunday. The Astros will start right-hander Asher Wojciechowski (0-1, 6.00). First pitch at 1:05 p.m.