HOUSTON — Baseball doesn’t believe in following scripts and plot lines that would seem so perfect. For every Kirk Gibson homer in the 1988 World Series, there are hundreds of moments so fitting for redemption and triumph that never occur because of the cruel difficulty of the game.
Really there didn’t need to be a no-hitter or a shutout to make the already uplifting situation surrounding Kendall Graveman’s start feel proper.
It didn’t need to be perfection, but something better than what transpired in the Mariners’ 8-5 loss to the Astros on Monday evening.
It had been 808 days since he’d last pitched in a Major League game – May 11, 2018, at Yankee Stadium – and during that span he’d dealt with struggles that led to a demotion, an aching elbow that never quite seemed right, subsequent season-ending surgery, being let go by the team that he’d made two opening-day starts for, a grueling, painful and lonely rehab that seemed less about strengthening his surgically repaired elbow and more about finding the mental and emotional will to erase the doubts and fears from his mind.
A solid outing where he allowed maybe a run or two over five innings would’ve been satisfactory in this saga. A pitching win? Not necessary, but would’ve been a nice addition.
Instead, Graveman pitched into the fifth inning, never recording an out while being charged with six earned runs on six hits with three walks and seven strikeouts in the loss.
“I thought he threw the ball a lot better than what his line will look like,” manager Scott Servais said. “It was his first time out in 800 some days.”
As Astros leadoff hitter George Springer readied to step into the batter’s box in the bottom of the first inning, Graveman stood behind the mound, glanced around for a moment, took a deep breath. He’d made it back to the big leagues. The doubts that wanted to fight their way into his mind during the recovery and rehab from Tommy John surgery could be forever vanished.
“It was a blessing and a privilege to be back out there, but, man, I wanted the outcome to be better as I’m sure many people did,” he said. “Now, it’s time to go to work, continue to work and get better. I’m thankful that I’m healthy, but now the outcome has got to be better.”
With adrenaline pulsing through his body, he delivered a tantalizing first inning. He struck out George Springer swinging on a 97-mph fastball. He struck out Jose Altuve looking with a 98-mph at the top of the strike zone. And he culminated the inning with a strikeout looking of Alex Bregman on a 95-mph cutter.
Obviously that sort of dominance wasn’t sustainable. The adrenaline faded and fatigue began the process of replacing that boost of energy with each pitch. The velocity dropped down a tick or two to a more normal rate of speed. Graveman’s command became a little less sharp and Astros hitters, now operating without the help of a camera and a trash can, started to figure him out.
After working out of traffic in the second inning with a timely double play, it couldn’t be avoided in the third inning. Given a 3-0 lead in the top half of the frame, highlighted by Evan White’s first career homer – a two-run blast to deep left-center — Graveman immediately gave those three runs back and more.
An error by Kyle Seager to start the inning was followed by a regrettable walk to light-hitting catcher Dustin Garneau, batting in the nine spot.
“You know the walk to Garneau was a tough one,” Graveman said. “That’s on me. Right there, I’ve got to make him put a ball in play, That’s how the inning kind of got rolling. Leadoff guy gets on and you walk a guy and you’ve got two guys who own space in the heart of the lineup.”
Graveman came back to strike out Springer, but Altuve yanked an elevated change-up down the left-field line to score Kyle Tucker. It was Altuve’s 300th double of his career, and it only seems like all 300 have come against Mariners pitchers. Moments later, a Graveman pitch that leaked back over the inside half to Bregman was turned into a three-run homer that gave the Astros a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
The Garneau walk wasn’t forgotten.
“You’ve got to bear down and make pitches,” he said. “Not to take anything from Garneau, we played together. But I’ve got to attack in that situation a little bit better. I had a big miss on 3-2 and it wasn’t even a competitive pitch and that’s frustrating for a pitcher.”
Graveman wore the loss. He found the third inning unacceptable in every way.
“We put up three and we’re looking for a shutdown ending, and that’s on me,” he said. “The loss is on me. I feel responsible for that because if you go and put up a zero. It’s a totally different ballgame and that’s something that I’ve got to do.”
Houston picked up some add-on runs off Graveman. A walk to Tucker in the fourth inning was followed by a triple from Garneau off the wall in deep left-center that was just out of the reach of a leaping Dee Gordon.
Graveman started the fifth and gave up a “home run” to Altuve that barely got over the wall in the short left-field area known as the Crawford boxes. A walk to Bregman ended Graveman’s outing at 88 pitches.
Lefty Taylor Guilbeau, who was called up from the taxi squad earlier in the day to replace the injured Brandon Brennan, entered and gave up two more runs, one of which was charged to Graveman.
Down 8-3, the Mariners tried to chip away at the lead, picking up a pair of runs in the seventh on an RBI from Seager and an RBI single from White.
The Mariners forced a shortened outing on Astros starter Josh James, working five walks off him. Seattle loaded the bases in the third inning on three straight walks. Seager hit into a double play, but it allowed a run to score. White stepped to the plate and hammered a misplaced change-up on a 1-2 count.
“It definitely felt good,” he said. “I was seeing myself in a lot of two-strike counts in this opening series and to be able to put a good swing on with two strikes was definitely a confidence booster.”
James’ fastball can touch 99 mph, and White was looking for that when he got the change-up in the middle of the plate.
“Definitely just react,” White said. “He’s throwing hard and I had to be ready for that. I feel like my best when I’m ready for the fastball and I’m able to adjust. It’s a very good change. He just made a mistake.”