CLEVELAND -- After 19 long days, the Mariners finally have their best reliever back.
Kendall Graveman was activated from the COVID IL ahead of Friday’s series opener against Cleveland and will return to the bullpen after a nearly month-long hiatus.
“I’m just thankful I'm healthy,” Graveman said at Progressive Field. “It's obviously something that happened, that I didn't necessarily intend to potentially hurt our team competitively. But I think it also gave a lot of guys opportunity to step up and show that they can pitch in the back end of a game. And to me, that's the biggest thing.
“I felt good, I didn't have any symptoms. I felt fine. But over those 10 days, it really rejuvenated the passion of the game, sitting there and watching the guys play, wanting to be there.”
Graveman has been shelved since May 23, including 10 days of quarantine in San Diego, when he and reliever Drew Steckenrider tested positive. The most challenging part of the isolation was being away from his family, with his wife expecting their second child soon.
“The emotions that go along with that, and I'd already been on the road for a little bit,” Graveman said. “And then just her being there with my daughter by herself in Seattle, I think that's big. Anybody in the game understands what the family and the aspect of the family is. And that's a very unique situation to be there by myself in a room.”
Graveman hasn’t pitched in a big league game since May 16. At that time, he had emerged as one of the top relievers in the American League, ranking seventh with 0.7 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs. He’s only given up six hits to 58 batters faced, and he’s yet to surrender a run in 16 2/3 innings across 14 outings.
Do the Mariners anticipate that he’ll return to that elite form immediately? Does he?
“I feel great,” the 30-year-old said. “If anything else, it was kind of a reset.”
Because he was sidelined for so long, Graveman also needed a tune-up assignment at Triple-A Tacoma on Tuesday, when he pitched the seventh inning and gave up one hit, one walk and one run.
“I needed that outing because location is kind of the first thing that goes,” Graveman said. “I thought the stuff was good. The velo was good. But location was missing a little bit. And then I needed those outings to kind of get back to locate the baseball. So, I feel good. I feel ready.”
There’s also the benign tumor near Graveman’s neck that the club has to be cautious about, as well. It’s the primary reason he was moved to a permanent bullpen role last September after five-plus seasons as an effective starter.
But Mariners manager Scott Servais said that the club plans to deploy him in leverage situations right away if they surface.
“I hope he can pick up where he left off,” Servais said. “Certainly, if we’re on the good side of the game tonight and need him in the eighth or ninth inning, he'll be out there. We'll take our chances. The one thing, Gravey has got a little experience. I’d probably feel differently if it was a rookie or a first-year guy.”
Right-hander Justin Dunn (shoulder inflammation) was also activated to start Friday at Progressive Field. In corresponding moves, relievers Yacksel Ríos and Keynan Middleton were optioned to Tacoma, the latter of which came as a somewhat surprising move.
Middleton was merely the odd man out in an eight-man bullpen that has seen JT Chargois, Paul Sewald and Steckenrider emerge as reliable pieces. Each was signed to a Minor League contract ahead of the season, while Middleton was brought in on a Major League deal.
Middleton was tagged for a combined five runs over his past two outings, during one of which he failed to record an out. For the season, he has a 4.42 ERA in 18 1/3 innings over 19 outings.
Graveman said that watching his relief teammates carry the load in his stead gave him at least some solace while being away.
“I knew that our 'pen had a chance to be really deep, but not deep in a sense of a lot of well-known names,” Graveman said. “But it gives a lot of guys an opportunity to showcase their skills at this level. And you start to see guys really kind of pan out and say, ‘Hey, I belong here.’”