Kendall Graveman was in a difficult spot in the seventh inning of the A’s 3-1 loss to the Padres on Thursday afternoon. He had struck out Will Middlebrooks for the second out of the inning, but on the pitch, Will Venable had stolen second base and taken third as catcher Josh Phegley’s throw sailed into center field.
Graveman, a right-hander, paced slowly at the back of the mound and appeared to glance toward the A’s dugout, as if uncertain whether he would be left in to face Cory Spangenberg – a left-handed hitter – with the A’s trailing by a run and insurance for the Padres 90 feet away. But nobody emerged from the dugout, and Graveman climbed the mound again to pitch to Spangenberg.
Graveman later said he was merely gathering himself before the at-bat, not expecting to see his manager or pitching coach heading his way. Spangenberg then hit Graveman’s 2-2 pitch sharply – but on the ground, and second baseman Eric Sogard made a backhand play to end the inning.
“I thought, we have guys that can set up, but they want me to get through the seventh,” Graveman said. “To say, ‘Hey, I think you can get another guy out,’ that was one of those things where I felt confident being able to get the guy out. And we did get him out.”
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It wasn’t long ago that escaping such situations seemed a monumental task for Graveman, who struggled so much in April that the A’s demoted him to Triple-A Nashville after just four starts, in which he recorded an 8.27 ERA. Since returning to the majors on May 23, Graveman has pitched to a 2.27 ERA in six starts – though the two solo home runs that he allowed in seven innings Thursday were enough to earn him a loss against the Padres.
Still, it was the third consecutive start in which Graveman has gone at least seven innings and allowed two or fewer runs. By contrast, he did not complete six innings once in four starts before being sent to Nashville. At that point Graveman’s struggles were obviously weighing on the 24-year-old – who had not started in the majors before this season – and manager Bob Melvin said Thursday it appears that Graveman’s Triple-A detour produced the intended effect.
“I think he was able to relax, get back to what he does well,” Melvin said. “Sometimes when you’re young and you get to the big leagues and get off to a rough start, you tend to press, and it can speed up for you a little bit. … The time off probably gave him a deep breath and got him back arm slot-wise and mechanics-wise to where he needed to be.”
Graveman said his Triple-A stint also gave him time to digest his failures at the major-league level and assess where he needed to improve. Specifically, he said, he focused on varying his pitch speeds and the way he approaches opposing hitters the second and third times through the lineup. At the encouragement of Nashville pitching coach Don Schulze, he started mixing in a slow breaking ball more to offset his sinker-cutter combination.
“It’s one of those things I’ve had, I’ve just not thrown it because I haven’t had confidence in it,” Graveman said of the breaking ball. “Going up through the minor leagues last year, the sinker and cutter were good enough. And now, the sinker and cutter are the same speed, so I have to learn to change speeds and not be afraid to throw that when I need to.”
Thursday, Graveman paid for one slow breaking ball – a 2-2 pitch that Matt Kemp lofted into the left-field seats in the fourth inning. Graveman credited Kemp with hitting a good pitch, but acknowledged a mistake on a 2-0 cutter to Derek Norris in the sixth that Norris hit for a line-drive home run to give San Diego a 2-0 lead.
Otherwise, Graveman was pleased with the way he attacked the strike zone, throwing 65 of his 96 pitches for strikes, and induced early contact from the Padres’ hitters, allowing him to go deeper into the game. Phegley said Graveman commanded his sinker well, and when the Padres began to catch on, Graveman mixed in the cutter, getting the San Diego hitters out in front and resulting in weak contact.
Outwardly emotional the day he was optioned to Nashville, Graveman said Thursday the time there was beneficial, and that: “I think failure is another thing that was good for me. I think it was one of those things that when I failed, I understood that you’ve got to learn how to get better.”