The stalwarts of the starting rotation, Sonny Gray and Rich Hill, are surrounded by trade rumors and could very likely be gone by the end of the month. Sonny Gray, from the moment he debuted, to his chilling playoff victory over Justin Verlander, to his consistency to baffle hitters into batting the ball weakly, has captured the heart and love of just about every A's fan. Rich Hill, though new to the team this season, instantly became a fan favorite himself from his comeback story, his overwhelming dominance on the mound, and his knee-buckling curves. Behind those two starters, no one on the 40-man roster has done much this season or last to stand out and that is a large reason why the A's have amongst the league's worst ERAs and FIPs.
If Gray and Hill are traded from the organization, Kendall Graveman will become the team's longest tenured starting pitcher (besides Jarrod Parker, who has a long battle back to the big leagues in front of him). Arriving to the A's during a time that leaves naught but bitter tastes in the collective mouths of every fan of the team, Graveman had lofty expectations thrust upon him that he promptly buried beneath fifty feet of crap and drew the ire of many. This season may be a lost season, but with the makeup of the team likely to change, and change soon, Graveman is suddenly in a position where he needs to step up and become a leader in the rotation and set an example for the newest call-ups. Graveman's ability has always been clear, his sinkers have some of the most dramatic downward movement in the league, but his control and consistency have always gotten the better of him. For his past seven starts, he's finally found it. Today, Graveman had the best start of his young career, and it could not have come at a better time.
From the outset, Kendall Graveman would prove to be dominant on the mound. Through his first four innings, Graveman faced the minimum, and was doing so while throwing no more than twelve pitches in an inning. He didn't have his swing and miss pitch working, as he only managed one strikeout during that span, but he did a good job in inducing contact that was directly at well-positioned fielders. There was some loud contact, and some warning-track power via some of the Astros sluggers, but it was clear that Graveman was putting his best foot forward in his start today.
Graveman surrendered his first hit in the fifth inning with two outs on an A.J. Reed single to the push side of a pull shift, but no damage became of it. His sixth inning would also go mostly smoothly, but as he started through the Astros' lineup a third time he would allow a double to Marwin Gonzalez. Once again, however, Graveman was able to strand the runner by inducing a ground out to the next batter. Graveman was inducing weak ground balls all night, and his ability to keep his sinkers and cutters low in the zone was vital in neutralizing the power that the Astros' lineup has. Through eight innings Graveman had a likely shot at pitching a complete game.
Against Lance McCullers, the A's offense picked up where it left off last night, putting together long, good at bats from the start of the game. The first time through the order Coco Crisp, Billy Butler, Yonder Alonso, and Marcus Semien all reached on base, though the only run that would score came via a park-aided home run to left field by none other than Stephen Vogt, the A's sole representative in the All Star Game. The A's would wind up stranding the bases loaded in the second inning, but would be able to pad their lead in the third in a way that is highly unusual for the 2016 A's. Josh Reddick would get things started with a single to left. A few batters later Vogt would drive Reddick in to double the A's lead. Then Butler walked. Then Alonso walked. Then, with the bases loaded yet again, Semien walked. When the third ended with the bases loaded for the second consecutive inning, the A's had a 3-0 lead and McCullers had tossed 75 pitches.
McCullers would make it through a harmless fourth, but then his day would be done as the A's offense practiced enough patience to remove the starter early. However, with the entrance of the Astros' bullpen, particularly Scott Feldman, the A's offense went anemic. The former starter relegated to the bullpen allowed just one hit through his first three innings on the mound, a Josh Reddick triple to deep center, but otherwise induced a lot of weak contact and kept A's off of the base paths before unfortunately needing to exit the game with an injury in the ninth inning. With Graveman and Feldman both dominating, a game that had been slowly churning along due to the A's rare showing of patience began to rapidly reach its end.
Graveman, sadly, was unable to finish his brilliant start as he allowed two very sharp singles to lead off the ninth inning. Replacing Graveman, with Sean Doolittle on the DL and Ryan Madson's poor performance the previous night, was Ryan Dull. Entering the game with runners on the corners and nobody out, it was clear that Dull's incredible record-streak of stranded inherited runners was likely to come to a close, and it did, as a run scored on a double play attempt on the first batter Dull faced (though let the record show if Ladendorf threw home, the streak could have potentially continued, but it is unlikely, and going for the double play was the smart baseball play anyways). The ninth continued to get slightly dicey as Dull would later allow a run scoring single to make the game a one run ball game, but Dull managed to net a strikeout of Carlos Gomez to end the game and notch the first major league save of his career.
Though he's not likely to become the next prime Brandon Webb (though we can all hope), Kendall Graveman could just be the mentor that the next generation of A's pitchers needs. He has great ability, but has to work hard to properly harness it. He has had great successes, but he's also had some pretty spectacular failures, and has even had to deal with getting shipped back and forth between the majors and minors, and knowing how to cope with both realities is a vital skill to have. For however long Graveman is with the team, he now has an ability to teach those around him in addition to taking the mound every five games, and time will tell if he can succeed in that role. Graveman's name may send deathly chills down the spines of fans who dare think back on the circumstances that brought him here, but it's much more than likely that Graveman has yet to properly demonstrate his full value to the team.