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Aaron Barrett stirs emotions after taking the mound for the first time in more than four years

Aaron Barrett stirs emotions after taking the mound for the first time in more than four years

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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Eric Thames appeared on the Korean 'Masked Singer,' because of course he did

Eric Thames appeared on the Korean 'Masked Singer,' because of course he did

Eric Thames is a fun-loving, weight-lifting, beard-growing, truck-driving, yoga-practicing, Avengers-obsessed potpourri of a man. Oh yeah, and he plays first base for the Washington Nationals.

There are few things that Thames can’t do. So it should come as no surprise that the left-handed slugger once emerged as a surprise contestant on the South Korean equivalent of “The Masked Singer” after spending three years in the Korea Baseball Organization.

Appearing on “The King of Mask Singer” last offseason, Thames busted out his rendition of Stevie Wonder's “Isn't She Lovely” before singing — in only slightly less-than-perfect Korean — the song “Americano” originally released by Korean duo 10cm.

He sat down with NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas for the Nationals Talk podcast and reflected on his moment in the spotlight.

“Preparing for that was definitely uncomfortable, to say the least,” Thames said. “I’m not afraid of being uncomfortable…but I had to go to a singing coach. He taught me different techniques about your posture, your breathing — like diaphragm breathing, I didn’t know what any of that was. But it’s definitely a unique experience.

“I was battling a K-pop guy who could belt notes like no other so I’m there just like I’m singing karaoke, [voice] cracking, but it was fun.”

The performance only added to Thames’ well-established Korean fame. He won MVP as a member of the KBO’s NC Dinos in 2015 after hitting 40 home runs, stealing 40 bases and winning the league batting title with a .381 average. His success overseas helped him land a three-year, $16 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers that stretched until this winter.


Thames now joins a Nationals roster that rode an exuberant clubhouse culture all the way to a World Series title. With Gerardo Parra, the face of that clubhouse personality, having departed for Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, there’s an opening for a player such as Thames to inject the energy into the clubhouse that it rallied around last season.

While Thames doesn’t expect to be singing his way into endearing himself to his teammates, he looks back on his performance as a fun experience.

“We recorded it and I had to wait probably like 25 days, so I couldn’t say anything. I had to keep it a secret,” Thames said. “I remember I flew with my buddy to London and we’re at the airport, getting on the shuttle, going to the hotel and he’s like, ‘Hey dude, the thing’s going to air in like 20 minutes,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, here we go.’ Sure enough it aired and my phone blew up. All my friends like, ‘Ahh, I didn’t know.’ It was cool.”

Even though Thames is someone who thrives in situations that make him uncomfortable, pulling off that mask and seeing the cheering audience around him was a moment he won’t soon forget.

“It was easier with the mask on,” Thames said. “It’s like singing in the dark. Nobody can see you, but when the mask is off it’s like all right, just let it all hang out there.”

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Public player spats leave MLB feeling similar to the NBA

Public player spats leave MLB feeling similar to the NBA

Baseball has long hunted for a better way into the headlines, some way to breakthrough and seem more hip or at least modestly up to date.

One of its digital arms created Cut4 almost a decade ago to spice up its social media brand. Lighter content, GIFs, campiness, anything but the rigid archaicness long associated with the game. Baseball wants to retain, but put to the back, the crowd who remembers Harmon Killebrew either through seeing him once upon a time or watching black-and-white Home Run Derby replays on ESPN decades ago. The league is desperate for a feel which resonates with the coming fan, not the graying one.

What Major League Baseball lacked, the NBA retained organically. Personality. Individual marketing. A crossover between apparel and personal brands so expansive, room existed for bit players to grow -- just ask Nick Young. Single players spoke their minds often, at times in front of the camera, others on social media. The freedom of expression led to another free: free headlines. From Kevin Durant’s burner account to Joel Embiid’s perpetual Twitter smack, the NBA’s marketing ran itself.

The league was about chatter, and blips and combative public words, which baseball had never been about. In an attempt to modernize, Major League Baseball thrusted out a pre-2019 season marketing campaign based on “letting the kids play.” A central figure in the main commercial was young Houston star Alex Bregman, who leaned into his mic to bust up the generic statement making going on around him. “We’re going to win this World Series and the next one,” Bregman said with a smile. Seven months after the commercial’s release, Bregman apologized for carrying his bat to first base in the World Series.

Baseball’s offseason scandal did do one thing: it produced headlines which led to the league finally drawing from its inner NBA. On camera, from coast to coast, players called out other players. Cody Bellinger sniffed at the Astros, Nick Markakis threatened them, Howie Kendrick flatly condemned them. “If you cheat, you cheat,” he said.

Houston’s Carlos Correa pivoted to take many of the complainers to task. He began his personal pushback on MLB Network, of all places, before expanding to a discussion with local Houston writers. He contended many players didn’t know what they were talking about. Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki was among his targets.

Since then, baseball has been able to continue with the NBA’s blueprint. The outside-of-the-field griping leads to intrigue about actual play (massive player movement in that league also helps in a way baseball will never reach). In this case, when the Astros took the field, what would happen?

They were booed. Hard. It was predictable. The first game at their shared facility in West Palm Beach included vocal disdain mostly for players fans likely don’t know. But, the lineup of minor-leaguers didn’t matter that first day. The concern was to target the big, orange H in all its forms. Baseballs began to hit Astros players -- seven in five games. Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard petulantly made Houston leadoff man George Springer wait among boos before throwing the first pitch.

This is easy for fans. Nothing is subjective. There is no wonder or counter argument like those which existed in the steroid era. The Astros are the convicted cheaters, the enemy, plain as day. 

Which helps. Not the path, no one would recommend that. However, a non-New York enemy -- especially one filled with talent in a large market -- helps MLB to what it can’t produce on its own because the games or season are too long. A clear-cut bad guy will be rolling town to town in 2020, giving both fans and opposition opportunity to express their thoughts. 

Social media will buzz. Individuals will have another round of fresh questions each time the Astros touchdown at a new airport. The cheaters are here, what do you think? And out of this black cloud will come further comments, verbal spats which were previously reserved for the clubhouse or group text chains. They are in the open now, which leaves MLB feeling similar to its most dialed-in three-letter brethren, which was a goal all along. Though the league would have preferred a different path to get there.

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