OAKLAND — It was a test of endurance for Kendall Graveman as much as a test of pitching skill Monday night.
The A’s bullpen was depleted and manager Bob Melvin was going to squeeze as much as he could out of his second-year right-hander.
Graveman proved up to the task, which is becoming the norm when he takes the mound. Graveman was in rhythm with his sinker as he held Houston to two earned runs over seven innings and a season-high 112 pitches. The result was his fifth victory in a row as the A’s beat the Houston Astros 7-4 in the opener of a three-game series.
“He knew going out there that we needed him to give us innings, pitches, and keep a lead like we got for him early on,” manager Bob Melvin said. “It was a significant outing for him today.”
There was a stretch during the first half when it seemed Graveman’s spot in the rotation could be in jeopardy. He was giving up home runs in bunches and had trouble keeping any lead that was handed to him.
But the past month has seen the 25-year-old make big-time strides. It centers around confidence in his sinker, he says.
“And confidence in it means I’m locating it better. I think that’s the biggest key right now, I’m locating the sinker. It’s got a little more velocity and still has good movement, so I think that’s really been able to get me deep in ballgames, get early outs and get double plays when I need to.”
But the numbers on the radar gun Monday, that was something new.
Graveman touched as high as 97 with his fastball according to one game-tracking system, and that’s unusual territory for him. Yes, the rest over the All-Star break had his arm feeling fresher. But Graveman, listed at 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds, is in better physical shape this season, with a huskier build that he showed up with in spring training and has been able to maintain through his work in the weight room.
Always one to spread the credit around, he praised A’s strength and conditioning coach Mike Henriques as well as the training staff for having him ready to go physically.
“I think I’ve gotten stronger as the season goes on,” Graveman said. “… I’ve kept my legs under me. I think that’s been a positive. Last year, I don’t know if I can say that. If you lose the legs, you lose a lot. I’m just trying to really stay on top of that as the season goes on.”
Graveman’s teammates helped him with a five-run fourth that gave him a 6-2 lead to work with. They chased Astros starter Mike Fiers that inning, and there were some fireworks in the visitors’ dugout. Cameras caught Fiers arguing with Houston manager A.J. Hinch, and then with outfielder Carlos Gomez. Word after the game was Fiers was bent out of shape for being pulled from the game when he was.
At any rate, the A’s got a three-RBI night from hot-hitting Yonder Alonso, an RBI double from rookie third baseman Ryon Healy and Khris Davis’ 23rd homer as an insurance run in the seventh. They also had a guy on the mound who seems to be developing confidence with each outing. Graveman gave up a solo homer, but it was the first long ball he’s surrendered in his past five outings. He gave up 10 homers over his first seven games.
“When the ball’s on the ground, it means he’s got his good stuff,” Melvin said. “I think because of the days off, the velo (registering) 96 with some sink … if he’s throwing strikes, he’s gonna be tough to deal with.”