Junior right-hander Kendall Graveman has flourished in the role of Sunday starter for the Mississippi State University baseball team.
This past weekend, Graveman threw the Bulldogs’ first complete game of the season in a 7-1 victory over then 10th-ranked LSU at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, La. Graveman struck out no batters but got an amazing 19 ground ball outs, while allowing 10 hits.
A native of Alexander City, Ala., Graveman is completing his third season with the Maroon and White. A mechanical engineering major, Graveman has cherished the opportunity to play baseball in the prestigious Southeastern Conference.
Q: What are some goals for the 2012 Bulldogs and how is this team progressing toward reaching those goals?
A: Every college baseball teams sets the goal of wanting it to make it to Omaha and to play for the national championship. (Head) Coach (John) Cohen and the staff do a great job of preparing us to reach those goals. Everything we have done since August 1 of last year has been done with reaching that goal in mind.
We are working through some injuries at the moment. I think that will be a positive in the long run. That is how we have to look it. There are some guys who are getting some experience and later on in the season you will see that as a positive thing. Right now, we can’t worry about what is going on around us. We have to go forward and compete each day.
Q: Last season, the team finished strong and made a surprise run to the final game of a super regional against Florida. What has that late-season success done in relation to motivating this season’s team?
A: Coach Cohen has taught us to believe in one another. Last season, we got hot there at the end. The leadership of the seniors was outstanding. It showed us what can be done in this program. I think experience is one of the greatest things you can have in baseball. For the people who were on the team last year, they got the experience of being in the playoffs and being in big-atmosphere games. They learned how to keep your body under control when things get really hyped up in a stadium.
I think that may be the biggest key that helped us carry over from the run we made last year.
Q: After early struggles in the first couple of seasons under Coach Cohen and his staff, the pitching staff has really emerged into a deep, talented staff. What are some of the biggest reasons for the pitching staff’s transformation on the mound?
A: We have a really close pitching staff. When several of us came in, we got thrown to the wolves. Not many people pitch in this league as a freshman. Coach Cohen has stated several times the number of appearances we all made as freshmen. A lot of times as freshmen, you sometimes don’t feel like you deserve to be in the position that you are in. When are you are a junior or senior in high school, you watch these talented players play in the College World Series on TV.
Now, you are facing these batters and are expected to get them out. That is quite an adjustment. The growing process over the past three years has been really good. (Pitching) coach (Butch) Thompson has been with us every step of the way. He has helped us not only grow into better pitchers but grow into better people as well.
Q: With such intense competition for innings, what is it like to be on a pitching staff with this amount of talent and depth?
A: This is the type of team you want to be on. You want to have to go out and compete every day for a role on the team. You also have to know your role. You can’t get outside of your role. That is when things become not so good for a team. Having a deep staff also allows you to – when you get into the 40th or 50th game of the season – continue to roll on.
You might not need some of these guys now, but you will in the end. You never know who will be on the mound making the last out to a win a conference tournament, or a regional, or super regional or in Omaha. You just have to make the most of your own individual situation. As a staff, we are behind each pitcher who goes out there, because the good of the team is the most important thing.
Q: When you are not on the mound, Coach Cohen said you watch every game in the dugout and track every batter. What is your mental aspect like as you prepare to pitch on a game day?
A: My dad (Gary) coached me since I was six- or seven-years-old. He is an assistant coach on the high school team (Benjamin Russell High School) I played on. He is the same exact way as I am. I always have a chart and I am always making notes. It is the way I was brought up. I try to make the most of starting on Sundays. It is a huge advantage.
I have a chance to see the other team’s lineup twice and I get to watch how pitchers go about trying to get those hitters out. Coach (Greg) Drye, our assistant strength coach, always pours into me that my stuff is better than their stuff. Pitching is disrupting timing and hitting is timing. The past couple of weeks, I have added a change-up. That pitch has really helped me do a better job of disrupting the hitter’s timing.
Q: By pitching on Sunday, you already know how your team has done in the first two games of the weekend series. Is there any added pressure, when you are pitching the final game of a series after two losses, or is it the same as the series being 1-1 or 2-0 in your favor?
A: On Sundays, we always say it is about toughness. We always believe the team that competes harder is going to win the Sunday game. I like to get out there and try to set a tempo. Sometimes, your energy level will not be as good as a team. You have already played two games and in some instances, you have been on the road and in a hotel all weekend. As the starting pitcher, I know I will be the freshest player on the team and I need to bring a high energy level.
If you don’t have a good demeanor, a good mound presence and a good tempo, then things can get real bad quickly on a Sunday, because all of the adrenaline is gone by that time in the series. I approach each start the same way. I try to fill up the zone with strikes and allow the defense to make plays behind me. The defense has done a great job this year. (Catcher) Mitch (Slauter) has done a great job behind the plate.
If you are trying to sweep, or win a series or even salvage a game, it is still an important outing. You can look back at the end of the year and see how a season sometimes hinges on those Sunday games.
Q: Now that you are in your third year in the program, you have been around the entire Southeastern Conference. What is it like on Saturday afternoon when Dudy Noble Field is packed and really rocking?
A: The atmosphere around here this year has been much better. There is a buzz around here. There is an expectation again and that is based off what we did last year. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I would not want to be somewhere where expectations are low. For the people who have followed Mississippi State for years, I really want to give back to those people. For the fans, who give the time, the money and the effort to be here at these games, I want to give them something to be proud of. That means a lot to me.
There are few places better to watch a baseball game on Saturday afternoons other than Dudy Noble.
Q: Looking back at the recruiting process, what tipped the scales for Mississippi State University?
A: Growing up as a (University of) Alabama fan and growing up 30 or 40 minutes from Auburn (University), you are in the light of those two schools your whole life. Coach Thompson was at Auburn when I was in high school and he really poured into me. When I was a junior in high school, my summer league coach got my foot in the door with Coach Thompson. The Lord works in mysterious ways. Coach Thompson left Auburn and (head) Coach (Tom) Slater resigned from Auburn. So that really made my situation difficult. I was still committed to Auburn.
Coach Thompson came here and called Coach Cohen about me. It ended up happening (that I came here). A lot of guys from Alabama followed Coach Thompson here because of what a really great guy he is. Coach Cohen, (MSU assistant) Coach (Lane) Burroughs, (MSU assistant) Coach (Nick) Mingione, well when they want you to come, you really can’t say no.
Then, when you come here for the first time and see the facilities, it is an amazing experience. You see the huge banner hanging off the scoreboard that says “College Baseball’s Greatest Fans.” After you see how many people piled into the stadium that day, you knew then deep down this was where you could achieve all of your goals.
The ability to get that many people to come to a super regional one more time here is my biggest motivation. These fans deserve to have that experience right here again.
Q: What is it like to play for Coach Cohen? What are his expectations and what are you and your teammates able to give him?
A: He demands perfection and won’t settle for anything less. Growing up, my dad was a coach and he was on me harder than anybody else. I got here and it was a little bit of a change, but not much. I love Coach Cohen to death. He has done a great job in the three years that I have been here. If you are not perfect, then he wants you to strive for that. He wants you to be as polished as you can be as a baseball player.
Personally, I think that is great when a coach does not settle for anything less than the absolute best that you can give him. I could not ask for anything more from a coach-player standpoint. This has been an incredible experience.
Q: Has the Southeastern Conference baseball experience been everything that you thought it would be? Or has it been even more?
A: It has been more, no question. You grow up and see football every Saturday on TV, but you don’t see SEC baseball the same way. Sometimes, you don’t get a feel of how many fans really do come to the games. On the road, the fans get on you but you don’t realize how genuine they are and how respectful they are.
We played at Alex Box last weekend and it was baseball at the highest level possible. The LSU fans gave (MSU starting pitcher) Chris (Stratton) a standing ovation when he left the game Friday night. You play in stadiums at Alabama and Auburn, these are places you dreamed about playing at as a kid. Then when it really does happen, it is a humbling experience.
Q: This past week, the team took its first road trip of the season. What is it like traveling on the road and how does the team bond through these experiences?
A: It is a lot different than playing at Dudy Noble. We have so many new guys on this team. We played the first 17 games at home and sometimes, it’s like do we ever have to play on the road? Eventually, it comes. During the course of the season, you will play a lot of big games on the road.
On the road trip, there is a lot of team bonding. There are a few fans at the team hotel. But for the most part, it is the players and the coaches and you are together all of the time. You go through scouting reports. As a veteran, you do try to find some time to invest into the younger guys. You want to show them around, since you have played at these places before.
As a freshman, I was uneasy about going on the road. You can tell when freshmen players feel the same way, even junior college transfers. Some of these guys have not played in the big stadiums before. You want to invest in them and tell them to imagine you are at home and things will work out for the best. Traveling on the road is a really great way to help build the team chemistry. We won so many important games on the road last year because we had a comfort level.
Q: As a mechanical engineering major, it is quite an impressive that you have the time to balance both baseball and academic commitments. How did that career field become chosen?
A: That was another reason why Mississippi State was on my priority list, because it was a lot like Auburn in that it was an agricultural and engineering school. Math has been something I have loved my whole life. It has come easy to me and come natural to me. We all tend to gravitate to things that come natural to us.
For the most part, math has always been an interest and I wondered what I could do with it. As a teenager growing up, I liked to take things apart and see how they work. My mom (Sharon) works for Civil Engineers all the time. She is around engineering a lot. I always wondered how I was going to balance engineering, because baseball is a 40-hour-a-week job. However, I think I am going to have to only add a semester or two to the end, which is not bad for an engineering degree.
The money aspect is good, too. But I always wanted to choose something that I would be interested in after I finished playing baseball.
Q: What type of influence have your parents played on your baseball career?
A: They have invested time and money. It is really humbling to look back and see what they have done. As a teenager, sometimes you get caught up and you don’t realize what they have done for you. It is emotional to me. My parents have been there every step of the way. My dad he loves me but he was hard on me in high school. My mom was always there to pick me up when I was down. It really is humbling. I could not have asked for any better parents. They guided me in a Christian walk and in a light that would be most pleasing to other people.
I think that is more important than anything I will ever learn on a baseball field.
Q: Based on your Christian influence, it is safe to assume that you play a role in the MSU chapter of the Fellow of Christian Athletes?
A: Yes, indeed. Tyson Lee and Bill Buckley have teamed up and do a great job with the FCA chapter here on campus. FCA is Monday nights and I try to make it every chance I get. (Pitcher) Luis Pollorena is over the baseball side of it. They give really great messages.
The FCA is trying to plan some things around the Starkville area that are centered on athletics, but also the Christian walk as well. We stay so busy but we find the time because it is worth it.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.