Digging his own Grave(man): Servais and the ’pen

Scott Servais won today. More accurately, the Seattle Mariners won, defeating the Cleveland Native American Caricatures 6-2 behind a great outing from starting pitcher Logan Gilbert and big hits from Jake Fraley, Kyle Seager, and J.P. Crawford. Servais just got lucky when his ineptitude was bailed out by fine glovework from Dylan Moore and Fraley.

It's a favorite topic here at GS.net, pointing out Servais' faults and failures, and though it may seem like a never-ending rant, the fact is that each time Servais shows himself to be, let's be kind, unobservant and unimaginative, the frustration mounts and we need to scream. Sometimes literally, at the TV or at the dugout, sometimes just by typing online, and sometimes, like today, both.

This afternoon's issue surrounded reliever Kendall Graveman, who was activated off the injured list prior to yesterday's game. As we know—more importantly, as Servais also knows—Graveman has a bone tumor in his neck. It's benign, but it's there, on his C6 spinal vertebra, which attaches to and interacts with several muscles and tissues and can impact nerves. Even slight discomfort from irritating that area—from sleeping on it awkwardly, from a startled twitch of the head, from any sort of impact to the area, etc.—can interfere with one's pitching motion, which is the entire reason The Undertaker is now stationed in the bullpen rather than the starting rotation. Longer outings mean more opportunity and increasingly likely chances of irritating that area, so only pitching for an inning or two at a time is far more prudent.

Graveman had been out of action for nearly a month after testing positive for COVID-19, had one inning of work in a rehab assignment to Tacoma, and worked one inning yesterday. Servais brought him in to pitch the ninth inning today in a non-save situation, which seemed OK but kind of dumb since it effectively meant he was burning Graveman for tomorrow, but as Servais mistakes go, this was relatively small. Then Graveman started pitching, and though he appeared fine throwing to his first batter, several pitches into his second he started missing his target more often, and by the fourth pitch of his third something was clearly wrong. He got a strikeout for out number one, but after throwing two meaty fastballs to José Ramírez he started to lose control of the fastball. It seemed that the only pitch he had a modicum of control over was the changeup, and it occurred to me, if not Servais, that Graveman's neck must be bothering him: he was not releasing the ball where he wanted to, and the more force (fastball) or torque (slider) exerted the further off-target the pitch went. Huh, I thought, that tumor must be grazing a nerve or inflaming a muscle when he nears the release point of his motion. His facial expressions lent credence to the theory. At one point broadcaster Mike Blowers remarked that Graveman was throwing a lot of changeups, to which I said to the TV, "yeah, because they hurt less and don't throw off his release point as much."

Ramírez grounded out on a 3-2 pitch thanks to a flashy play by Moore to save a hit, but then Eddie Rosario walked, Billy Bradley singled, and Harold Ramírez was hit by yet another errant fastball. Graveman's body language during Bradley's at-bat was telling, he was clearly frustrated if not in pain. After Bradley's hit, pitching coach Pete Woodworth did go to the mound for a chat, but thanks to the mask on his face I've no idea what was said; my impression of Graveman is that he would not admit to a sort of discomfort that he's chosen to push through, but that's just supposition. With Josh Naylor up, Graveman uncorked one to the backstop that scored Rosario. Naylor gifted him with a swinging strike on a low change, took a slightly better change for a strike, ran the count full on pitches well off target, and lined the last pitch into the opposite field that mercifully stayed aloft just long enough for Jake Fraley to once again catch the third out rather than see it fall for a pair of RBIs.

Would Servais have relieved Graveman if Fraley had been unable to snag Naylor's drive? It clearly wasn't in his plan. He told broadcaster Dave Sims before the game that Graveman was the guy he was going to use in the ninth, and because Servais is Servais, the fact that it didn't turn out to be a save situation didn't alter the plan (Servais does not alter plans because of pesky details like what happens in the game). Would he have just left Graveman out there to keep throwing wildly and in obvious discomfort if not pain until the lead was gone? Even though J.T Chargois had begun throwing in the bullpen, it seems likely that the answer would be yes. Today Servais got lucky. He was either (a) oblivious to Graveman's discomfort despite knowing full well that exactly this sort of thing can happen with his neck trouble, or (b) incapable of deviating from his pre-planned formula regardless and it would have taken Graveman collapsing on the mound to force a move, or (c) both.

If Scott Servais is going to be this obtuse, unobservant, and inflexible even when his pitchers are dealing with a physical impediment, then someone else needs to step up. Kendall Graveman has been very important to the M's this season and ignoring a potential physical problem that could put him out of action for even a few days is just plain stupid. Woodworth or bench coach Jered Sandberg or, hell, even the trainer, whose job is definitely not strategy, needs to pay attention and take Servais aside and say, "hey, Skip, Kendall can't find his release point, I think the tumor might be hurting him so you need to go get him right now. At least go talk to him." Maybe none of them felt like they can do that. Maybe they weren't noticing the situation either. Maybe Woodworth was convinced by his mound visit that nothing was wrong. Maybe Servais sets a firm chain of command that doesn't allow for input.

This might be totally wrong—I recognize that it's not verified information that Graveman's spinal tumor was irritating his muscles or nerves and interfering with his motion today; this is merely something that can be and was theorized by someone paying attention to the action that knows the background of the involved parties. I don't know Kendall Graveman personally and obviously he hasn't told me anything about how he felt on the mound today. His frustrating inning, twitchy body language, and grimaced reactions to errant pitches might not have had anything to do with his neck, it's possible.

We don't know for certain what Servais noticed or didn't, what Graveman said to Woodworth, what Woodworth reported back to Servais. And I freely acknowledge that my bias leans toward Servais failing to recognize things. But this went beyond just dumbly believing that Rafael Montero can pitch out of trouble every time out or that Dan Altavilla could spot a fastball or that Nick Rumbelow was capable of handling a high-pressure Major League inning. This wasn't just watching the pregame plan blow up, this appeared to be a manager watching a physical issue with his closer worsen in front of his eyes and treating it as business as usual.


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