From his spot during warm-ups, Kendall Graveman soaks in the atmosphere of Dudy Noble Field–-the smoke drifting over the outfield from the grills in Left Field Lounge, the music pumping over the PA system, the crack of the bat as it makes contact with the ball.
From his spot in the dugout, Graveman thinks like an engineer–-contemplating trajectory, velocity and effects of the wind as the ball flies into the outfield.
From his spot on the mound, Graveman focuses.
When it’s his turn on the diamond, all of the noise, all of the ambiance and all of the calculations melt away.
“It comes naturally once you get out on the field,” the right-handed pitcher explained. “It’s like being on autopilot. You have to trust that your years of training have prepared you well enough to get the job done.”
This past season, getting the job done meant 19 starts for Graveman in the Diamond Dawgs’ run to the title game in the College World Series. The historic year marked the Mississippi State program’s first national championship appearance and its most wins in a season.
It was also a record-setting year for Graveman, who pitched 113 innings, a season high for the team. But it was three complete games pitched on consecutive Saturdays mid-season that made No. 49’s year unique.
“Complete games are kind of a goal for a starter and it’s something you can take pride in,” Graveman said of the feat he first achieved in 2012.
Starters are typically sidelined once they’ve thrown around 100 pitches to avoid overtaxing their arms. Mississippi State pitching coach Butch Thompson said Graveman’s particular throwing style helps keep the count low making complete games possible.
“Kendall is a sinker ball artist, which extends his lifespan as a pitcher,” Thompson said. “He goes out and really tries to produce ground balls, which can lead to quick outs and double plays.”
During his streak of complete games, Graveman threw only 99 pitches against Arkansas, 107 against Florida, and 110 against Texas A&M. The team produced 18, 14 and eight ground outs in those games, respectively. At the conclusion of the season, Mississippi State was tied with Alabama at 80 double plays on the year, one off from leading the NCAA.
“I don’t strike out as many people as some starters, but the sinker is kind of my signature,” Graveman said. “I know if I can create sink on the pitch we can get that ground ball and make a play.”
A sinker is a type of fastball that has significant downward motion as it approaches the plate. The pitch will fall below the barrel of the bat so it only makes contact with the top of the ball. This results in a weaker hit, or ground ball, which can be quickly fielded by the defense.
“If I’m going to go out and create those ground balls, I have to know that I can trust the defense to make the play,” Graveman said. “And I have a lot of trust in my teammates.”
It was faith in the team that brought the Alexander City, Ala., native back for the 2013 season, his last year of collegiate eligibility. He turned down an offer from the Miami Marlins at the end of his junior season, betting that in a year’s time the Diamond Dawgs would be on their way to Omaha, home of the College World Series.
“There were several factors that helped me make my decision to come back,” Graveman explained. “I wanted to get closer to finishing my degree, I love the atmosphere at Dudy Noble, and I really wanted to take this team to Omaha. And, I felt in my heart that we had a chance.”
Selected as a captain by his teammates, Graveman made it his goal to lead by example and set a tone of hard work and diligence from the start of fall practice to the last out of the season.
“It was humbling to be made a leader of the team,” Graveman said. “I didn’t want to let any of my teammates down so I knew I had to do my best and work the hardest.”
Graveman said that the need to work hard for the team is something he learned as a freshman when he realized finding a balance between baseball and school was the only way to be successful.
A senior in mechanical engineering, he credits undergraduate coordinators Chris Emplaincourt, now retired, and Tammy Coleman with helping encourage him to stick with the major. And he said seeing upperclassmen succeed on the field and in the classroom over the years helped prove that it was possible.
“It’s been a lot of late nights and early mornings,” Graveman said. “But it hasn’t killed me yet.”
Graveman concluded his senior season as an eight round draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays. He saw action in 10 games this summer as part of the pro club’s farm team the Lansing Lugnuts. Being only one semester shy of his engineering degree, he returned to Starkville this fall to finish the curriculum.
“I knew if I was fortunate enough to be drafted this year, I would probably go,” Graveman explained. “ I would hate to look back years from now and think I had missed that opportunity. But at the same time, I knew it was important to finish my degree before it’s too late in the game.”
So in December, from his spot at graduation, Graveman could relax, knowing that whether his future lies in professional baseball or an engineering career, he had done the hard work and laid a foundation for success.