As he sat down at a makeshift dais for his postgame video call with local media, Kendall Graveman had a unique piece of jewelry around his neck — a monstrosity of a chain necklace appearing almost an inch in diameter and gaudy in a way that would make a 1980s rapper proud.
“A couple of my starter friends purchased me a welcome back gift,” Graveman said with a sheepish look. “They told me I needed to wear it after I pitched in games. I missed these guys while I was gone. Being back, it’s fun being around the group. I think I have a lot to offer and these guys made me feel welcome.”
For a pitcher dealing with a lingering neck issue, it seems like an unnecessary adornment provided by teammates.
“It’s almost a pound,” he said. “I will let you decide if it’s real or not. We’ve got a lot of rookies, so it may not be real.”
And while the benign tumor in Graveman’s neck isn’t going away, the discomfort that it sends through his shoulders and back was absent when he made his return to the Mariners in Friday night’s 6-3 victory over the Rangers in his new role as a full-time reliever.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “I’m blessed to be back out there and, woo, it’s been a little bit of roller coaster here for a little bit. But I’m just so thankful that I’m able to do what I’m doing right now. It was a lot of fun tonight. I think my heart rate was really high warming up to go into that game.”
Graveman, who basically missed all of August with the neck issue, entered the game as a replacement for starter Yusei Kikuchi to start the seventh inning. He worked a smooth 1-2-3 inning, featuring two easy groundball outs and a triumph over Rangers left-handed swinging masher Joey Gallo in a seven-pitch at-bat where he threw a perfect 3-2 sinker that started moving toward Gallo’s front hip and darted back into the strike zone. The pitch was clocked at 97 mph.
“I thought Kendall Graveman was electric,” manager Scott Servais said in a postgame video call. “I thought his stuff was just awesome tonight. Certainly he hadn’t pitched in a while. I was excited to see him out of the bullpen. He wanted to get the ball tonight and see how that was going to look. That was awesome stuff that he fired out there tonight.”
Just as home-plate umpire John Libka made an emphatic strike-three call on Gallo, the Mariners’ dugout exploded with cheers. Graveman’s personality, optimism and perseverance have been infectious with his teammates since the first days of spring training. He instantly became a leader on the team. They also know what he’s been through with the neck issue. Hence, the cheers and their gold-chain gift.
“It was awesome,” first baseman Evan White said in a postgame video call. “To see all the stuff he’s been through, see all the hard work he’s put into it, to be out there and play behind him was awesome. We had a big smile on our faces. He’s just a guy you love having around. He helps us grow on and off the field and he’s, again, a great guy to have in the clubhouse.”
Even Taijuan Walker, who was traded a week ago, was watching the Mariners game and sent out a tweet: “So happy for my brotha #KendallGraveman.. That inning was absolutely electric.”
With the exception of his September call-up in 2014 when he made five relief appearances for the Blue Jays, Graveman has been a starter for his entire MLB career. He’s made 80 career starts, including two with the Mariners this season.
However, the tumor, which he was diagnosed with last year while with the Cubs, has caused increased discomfort when his pitch count and innings build in an outing. With no surgical option to provide relief, the plan, at least for this season, is to pitch in a relief role with the hope being that short bursts of one or two innings can allow him to contribute and be effective.
“They say with time, what I have will eventually burn off and stop producing pain,” he said. “But we don’t know when that is. So right now, I know what I can do, a lot of this has been trial and error, but pitching in short stints — what I did tonight, I’m able to, one, help the team and, two, feel healthy. One inning or two innings are better than no innings in my book. I just want to be able to pitch. I have a passion for this game. I want to be around guys. We’re young in the bullpen, but I believe we have a chance to be really good in the bullpen. I hope that I can help with that and help the learning process and learning curve for some guys.”
The Mariners have six rookies in the bullpen, but Graveman is also admittedly inexperienced pitching in relief. He’s asked a lot of questions and leaned heavily on right-hander Matt Magill for tips on preparation, warming up and mentality. There is an immediacy to pitching out of the bullpen. You need to be “on” from the first pitch.
“It is very different,” he said. “Even in that situation tonight, 3-2 to Gallo, two outs, the last thing you want to do is put the winning run at the plate — so step off, take a deep breath. The moments are a lot bigger than starting. For me, just knowing that being able to slow the game down and execute in a pitch there 3-2 and not walking a guy, I think that comes from the experience of starting, but it’s different than starting, too. You don’t have time to settle into a game. Go out and let your best stuff, let it out there for 15, 20, 10 pitches, however many it takes, and then pass it on to the next guy.”
Graveman’s best stuff was on display with a fastball that touched 99 mph and his best sinkers were clocked at 97 mph with nasty movement. As his teammates greeted him at the dugout, there was a smile of relief and accomplishment for Graveman. It was vastly different than the tears and anguish a few weeks ago when he revealed the situation with the tumor and the frustration of no immediate solution.
“I’m in a situation that’s unique,” Graveman said. “I don’t know of anyone else who is going through what I’ve gone through. Like I’ve told you guys before, it’s something that’s grown me as a person and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And through my weakness, and through what I’ve struggled with and I’m going through, I’ve been able to become a better person, teammate, husband, father, and I’m just so thankful for the journey that I’ve been on and the way it has gone.”
Could the journey lead a permanent switch for him? The easy comparison is the success John Smoltz had moving from starter to closer for the Braves after health issues. Of course, Smoltz was already a Hall of Fame level starting pitcher. Graveman is just hoping to find some normalcy in his career. Perhaps the well-traveled Jason Isringhausen is a better example. A top prospect with the Mets, arm issues forced him into a reliever role after 52 MLB starts. Isringhausen saved 300 games in his career and made two All-Star teams.
The Mariners have a $3.5 million club option for next season. It’s not a large amount of money. Graveman has displayed impeccable leadership on and off the field this season. He could provide a veteran presence in a bullpen that will still be short on experience in 2021. He does have closer-level stuff. He could be a trade chip at the deadline or perhaps a pitcher they might invest in if the team starts to come together.
Of course, there is more value to a team in Graveman being a viable starter and the possibility of more financial gain for him. But that may not be realistic given the unpredictability of his health. It does seem like Graveman will do whatever as long as he can stay healthy, avoid the injured list and contribute.
“At the end of the day, I love this game and I want to pitch,” he said. “It was very big for my career and who I am. I don’t know what the future holds, none of us do with our careers. But that was fun tonight and I see some light at the end of the tunnel almost. If this is what comes out of my career because of what I’m going through, then maybe that’s why I’m going through it — to pitch out of the bullpen and be a back-end or middle of the bullpen kind of guy and go from there. I don’t know, but I know tonight was fun.”