MARYVALE, Ariz. — Kendall Graveman’s voice softened and even wavered a little discussing the memory.
A year ago at this time, he was locked into a lonely, monotonous grind of major surgery rehab. And while he’d watched plenty of teammates endure the seemingly never-ending process before, it still didn’t prepare him for the slog of incremental improvement that was difficult notice week to week, let alone day to day.
“I was just trying to stay out of the way over at the (Chicago) Cubs facility,” he said. “What did my day look like? Four hours of rehab/workout. Usually a couple hours of rehab, couple hours of workout, maybe a couple hours of conditioning. I felt really anonymous. But it was good. It was a good season of staying anonymous. Nobody really knew how I was, just staying out of the way, which is good. I needed that.”
Eighteen months after undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, Graveman took to the mound Tuesday for the Seattle Mariners in his first Cactus League outing of the spring. He tossed two scoreless innings, allowing a hit and a walk while never once worrying about his surgically repaired elbow. It was the first time he was able to remove that concern post surgery.
“When I was making rehab starts with the Cubs … you were always thinking, ‘Is it going to feel good today? Is it going to feel good today?’” he said. “You get through the offseason, you move forward and now it’s, ‘Let’s go out and compete.’ When you can limit the thoughts in your head, and simply go out and compete, that’s when we are at our best.”
When Graveman is at his best, he’s throwing a sinking fastball and getting ground-ball outs. Five of the seven batters he faced Tuesday hit the ball on the ground. In his most successful seasons with the Oakland A’s before the surgery, Graveman induced a ground-ball rate of more than 50% thanks to a sinking fastball.
“That’s the goal of mine, is to get ground balls,” he said. “That’s who I am. Because when I go out and try to strike guys out, I create a person that I’m not. For me to have success, I have to realize that’s who I am. I need to continue to do that going forward. The sink was good, the velocity was good. I thought we changed speeds just enough. We attacked hitters. Twenty-six pitches in two innings is a good number. That gets you deep in ballgames.”
Mariners manager Scott Servais could sense Graveman’s intensity leading up to first pitch and was pleased with the results.
“A really nice outing by Kendall Graveman,” Servais said. “It’s been a while since he’s been out there. I know he was really anxious to get out there. He threw the ball really well. That’s what you are going to get from him. You are going to get soft contact, the ball is going to be on the ground and you have to play good defense behind him. We did that today.”
Graveman’s goals in Tuesday’s first spring start were simple and relayed to catcher Tom Murphy before the game.
“I told Murph, I just want to go out and compete and have fun,” Graveman said. “Over these last 18 months of rehab, I’ve kind of really grown and rekindled my passion for the game. I don’t want it to be a stress. Let’s go out and have a good time and have fun while staying focused. A big league game against big league hitters, it’s been a while. It was good.”
Graveman mentioned his rejuvenated spirit to some of the minor league players who were called up from minor league camp and joined the team in Maryville — about 12 miles from Mariners camp in Peoria — as backups.
“I’m blessed to be able to put on a uniform,” he said. “I was talking to some of the guys earlier, some of the guys that were coming over to back up. And just telling them it’s a privilege to put on this jersey each time we go out. That’s kind of how I viewed it today.”
That realization is borne out of those lonely days of rehab a year ago. They offered him a reminder that health isn’t a given and careers don’t last forever.
“I believe it happened for a reason in my life,” he said. “You can’t take it for granted. A lot of times, we think it’s the norm in our life because we’ve done it for so long. Then when it gets taken away from you, you realize that this something we get to do and we are privileged to do.”