Nationals

Nationals

The first one will be forgotten, pulled to the left, going on a ride toward the backstop. Aaron Barrett looked down at the mound in SunTrust Park the way a shooter hunting for an explanation does following an air ball. Really, his nerves wildly threw the first pitch just a handful of miles from his offseason home. More than four years had passed since he last performed such a task on a major-league mound, so a pulsing heartbeat will be forgiven for hampering location.

Barrett walked the first batter on four pitches. He then walked around the mound, sucked some air in, and pointed at the middle infield in order to designate who would be handling a throw. The rough start to the fifth inning Saturday made everyone wonder where it would end. Did this comeback story have a lost first outing in it? Even so, would it matter?

Barrett was able to right himself after a fifth straight ball. Pitcher Julio Teheran popped out attempting to bunt. Ronald Acuña Jr. struck out on three pitches -- the final of which was an 84-mph changeup that locked him up. Ozzie Albies flew out to center field. Inning over.

Aug. 5, 2015, Barrett threw ⅓ of an inning and allowed three runs. He was placed on the injured list with an elbow strain two days later. Barrett wouldn’t pitch again in the major leagues until Saturday night in Atlanta when he yanked a 92-mph fastball. The more than four years between pitches included a Tommy John surgery almost a month to the day after he left the mound; a broken elbow, the sound of which almost made pitching coach Paul Menhart throw up on the spot; and even ankle surgery. Barrett went to short-A to pitch for Auburn last season. He made it to Double-A Harrisburg this season. Wednesday, he was recalled to the major leagues, accepting hugs and wide-eyed congratulations in the Nationals’ clubhouse.


Barrett warmed up twice -- Wednesday and Friday -- before finally making it into a game Saturday. A return at home would have fulfilled the fans’ desire to see him back. A return in Atlanta made it easy for a bevy of friends and family to watch something few thought would happen. The start of Barrett’s rehabilitation following his elbow fracture focused on every day usage. Baseball was not the priority. But, he kept going and going, back to major-league spring training in February, WD-40 can in hand for a joke (he said it’s used to lubricate the metal now living in his right elbow), as if him constantly smiling wasn’t enough.

Seven months later, two fists into his glove preceded his walk off the mound Saturday night. Exhales came out. Emotion bubbled. High-fives awaited at the top step. A hug from Davey Martinez arrived. A moment between Menhart and Barrett followed. That cracked Barrett. 

Menhart told him in spring training he would be there when Barrett made it back to the major leagues. Neither expected Menhart to have moved from his minor-league pitching instructor role to the big club’s pitching coach, but there he was when Barrett walked into the clubhouse earlier in the week.


“It’s kind of a like a little running joke between us,” Menhart told NBC Sports Washington on Wednesday. “He’s earned every second of it. He’s worked his tail off. He’s just an unbelievable human being. Work ethic off the charts. The thing that isn’t spoken about a lot is what a great teammate he is. It starts from two years ago when he played in Auburn, he’s like an extra coach. If you talk to Matt LeCroy, he was like an extra coach [in Harrisburg] and taught those kids down there how to be pros and he’s the epitome of a pro.”

After their long post-appearance hug, Barrett sat down and began to bawl in the dugout. He was initially provided space. Martinez later came over and draped a towel across his shoulders while Barrett pushed a balled-up one into his face to catch tears. He sat up, cheeks flushed. Eventually, he stood and cracked a comment which made him smile. He was all the way back. More than four years later. What else would there be to do?

 

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