JUPITER, Fla. • Marlins righthander Brett Graves was such a huge Cardinals fan growing up in St. Charles, he spent countless hours as a child emulating the swings of his favorite Redbirds.
Like most boys in the St. Louis area, the Francis Howell High graduate’s bedroom was decorated in Cardinals paraphernalia as a kid. Although he was only 5 at the time, he vividly remembers being among the sellout crowd at Busch Stadium II on Sept. 7, 1998, when Mark McGwire tied Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.
At 13, he was also among the red-clad crowd at Busch Stadium III cheering loudly during a 2006 World Series game. And as a freshman at Mizzou in 2011, he proudly joined many of his classmates as they watched the Cardinals win their 11th World Series title.
With so much of his youth invested on the Cardinals, he normally would have appreciated that Mike Matheny used a lineup Tuesday that was missing only one position player expected to start on opening day.
He was too busy trying to induce outs, however, to worry about childhood memories. With a group of close friends from St. Charles in attendance, Graves couldn’t waste much energy on nostalgia as he faced the Cardinals for the first time in a Grapefruit League game. His first appearance against his hometown team proved to be more bitter than sweet.
Expected to go at least two innings and perhaps as many as three, he exited after only two-thirds of an inning with a left oblique injury at Roger Dean Stadium.
“Obviously it’s on my mind,” Graves said, referring to facing the team he followed closely. “As far as the way you got to approach the game it’s something I’ve been working through my own thought process. Regardless of who is in the box I go to my process and my steps to focus ultimately taking whoever the hitter is kind of out of the equation.
“Obviously some guys you would attack them differently than you would attack other guys. That’s all the pitch calling and sequencing stuff that you go through within a game. But as far as what I need to do to make pitches I think that any other outside thoughts like that are just distracting.”
Graves, 25, cannot afford to focus on anything other than making the opening day roster these days. The rebuilding Marlins picked him in the Rule 5 draft in December from the A’s.
He must entice the Marlins to keep him on the major-league roster all year or be offered back to the A’s, who would probably send him back to the minors to develop further.
Although Graves had felt mild stiffness on his left side all week leading up to his third Grapefruit League appearance, he didn’t think the discomfort was a sign of anything major.
“Strength-wise was fine,” he said. “All warming up was fine.”
It wasn’t all fine. He walked Dexter Fowler to lead off the game. Then he hit Tommy Pham with a pitch. He induced a fly out to right from Paul DeJong and then struck out Marcell Ozuna.
Then the kid who grew up cheering for Molina and Adam Wainwright finally had a chance to face one the men he grew up following closely.
“Yadi, Waino were there all of my childhood,” he said. “It was pretty neat, but approaching it from a pitcher’s perspective I was just trying to focus and execute. Regardless of who’s in the box I think that’s the way that you got to attack the game no matter what level you’re throwing at or no matter who you’re facing. Obviously a cool experience for me.”
Graves’ afternoon unraveled after Ozuna struck out. With Molina at the plate, Pham broke for second and then Fowler stole home to give the Cardinals a 1-0 lead. Molina then hit an RBI double down the left-field line.
Graves felt a tweak after he rotated his side to track Molina’s double. He realized something was wrong when his next two sinkers to Jedd Gyorko didn’t sink as he hoped. He didn’t make another pitch. Marlins manager Don Mattingly and a trainer visited him on the mound and pulled him.
“It was grabbing on both of those two pitches I threw,” he said. “They were supposed to be sinkers to one side of the plate and it was cutting to the other side of the plate, so it was actually not good.”
Graves, who is 1-0 with a 4.76 ERA over three outings this spring, gave up one hit and three runs (two earned) with one walk, one hit batsman and one strikeout while throwing 13 of his 25 pitches for strikes.
It’s too early to estimate how long the injury will set Graves back, if at all. Friends who have suffered similar oblique strains have told him the pain isn’t as extreme until the day after the initial tweak.
Graves, who was 23-21 with a 5.00 ERA over four minor-league seasons with the A’s, was 1-1 with a 4.47 ERA combined between Class A Stockton and Class AA Midland last season. Those numbers were good enough to entice the Marlins, but it’s unclear how much more he needs to prove to remain on the big league roster.
“I’m kind of anxious, I guess, to see how I feel tomorrow,” he said. “Really at this point there’s not much else I can do except doing everything I can to get back on the field. I’m listening to the training staff on how I need to go about doing that.”