June 22, 2013 11:28:02 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
OMAHA, Neb. -- Kendall Graveman told the Mississippi State University coaches Friday morning he didn't feel as physically strong as he did prior to previous starts.
MSU coaches John Cohen and Butch Thompson weren't worried.
"I knew Kendall would try to live in the 88-89 mph zone that we've preached to him because he had no choice," Cohen said. "I knew Kendall Graveman would be at his best the moment he said that. He didn't realize it because he's an 18- to 22-year-old young man that doesn't know what his strengths are yet. I'll say this, though, he sure learned a lot Friday night about himself and his leadership abilities."
In the process, Graveman helped MSU make history.
The senior right-hander threw a 5 2/3-inning gem to set the tone for MSU en route to a 4-1 victory against No. 3 national seed Oregon State University in the championship game of bracket one at the College World Series.
After 109 innings in 18 starts, Graveman (8-5) could feel the fatigue of a season's worth of work. He didn't know the cliché that says sinkerball pitchers typically have better stuff with tired arms would work out like it did Friday, which is why he wanted to be honest with his coaches. He came away confused by their reaction.
"I didn't think they'd like hearing that from me," Graveman said. "My thought was 'OK, our coaches have always let us run our own show out there. Maybe they're just confident I can figure out how to get five or six innings today even without my best stuff.' "
Graveman didn't look like he didn't have his best stuff. He limited Oregon State (52-13) to four hits and a walk in his 74-pitch outing. Although he only struck out two, Graveman used his sinker and stayed down in the strike zone. Scouts and coaches believe fatigued pitchers are more apt to get more movement on pitches and to get their pitches to drop, so a tired arm helped him on both accounts.
"I told him before the game, 'I think you'll be even better than you've ever been because you'll change speeds more and you'll be in the bottom of the zone more,' " Thompson said. "One of the things I'm preparing them for is the fact he just went in the eighth round (of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft). He has to be prepared for a 162-game and a 140-game (minor league) season. You're teaching them a process of breaking down barriers. When he feels great, he tries to throw the baseball through a door and it's up and he gives up one or two early runs."
With the College World Series championship series starting Monday night, it is unclear whether MSU (51-18) will be able to use Graveman on short rest Tuesday or Wednesday for an if-necessary game.
"He'll be beating our door down the night before that game two or game three to want the baseball, and man, I'd want that for him so badly, but we just don't know if that's possible," Cohen said.
Graveman's performance Friday night against one of the nation's top offenses marked the third time in four starts in the NCAA tournament he pitched into the sixth inning. No other MSU starter has pitched into the fourth inning in the postseason. A 20-mph wind also helped the groundball-throwing Graveman. Of the first 10 balls put into play against him, eight were fly outs, one was a groundout, and one was a hit.
"I really think seeing them less than a week ago allowed me the opportunity to prepare better and get a game plan to go two or even three times through their order," Graveman said. "I just decided that if they wanted to lift something off my sinker into a 25 mph wind blowing in and they got a hit, great job by them."
If Friday is Graveman's last appearance in a MSU jersey, his effort epitomizes how he defined the word competitor the Bulldogs use to describe their co-captain.
"I may not remember that performance exactly, but I'll always remember how hard he competed every time out," MSU first baseman and co-captain Wes Rea said. "Every day you see him at the park is exactly how he is as a person. He has to be best. That dude will always give the people around him a chance to succeed."
Thompson, who Graveman has described as his "on-field dad," said Saturday after a morning practice that he'll remember the journey from being recruited to go to MSU to signing with the Bulldogs to playing a key role in a victory that helped send the program to its first national championship series appearance.
Graveman watched MSU finish 6-24 in the Southeastern Conference in his first season in Starkville. The next season, SEC coaches picked the Bulldogs to finish last again. Graveman also experienced his share of ups and downs. The Alexander City, Ala., native was removed from the starting rotation in each of his first two seasons. He had so much trouble as a freshman Cohen repeatedly referred to Graveman when he talked about underclassmen "getting their teeth kicked in" in the SEC.
"I'll remember (former MLB pitcher) Scott Sullivan, who coached Kendall in summer ball, told me, 'Butch this is a boy that someday will be a man of integrity, and that's why you should give him a scholarship,' " Thompson said. "I remember pitching him as a freshman against South Carolina and we gave up 10 runs and he was crying. I sat with him three hours after curfew in the hotel lobby saying, 'You're going to be OK because I promise you brighter days are ahead.' "
Graveman's eighth victory of the season -- and third in the postseason, which is tied for the most on the team -- paved the way for the Bulldogs to continue down the road Thompson envisioned in that hotel lobby in Columbia, S.C.
"I've known for years this is not about me, and wasn't the first time when I was here as a pitching coach at the old Rosenblatt Stadium, but you spend so much time with a young man that you begin to appreciate why it's so well deserved when they succeed," Thompson said. "For Kendall on Friday night, that was his moment, and he did everything we've asked of him."