PHOENIX — There had been 1,651 games in Nationals history over the last decade, far too many of them blowout losses, especially during some of the lean, early years of the franchise's existence in the District. But it wasn't until Game No. 1,652 that the situation became so dire as to require the services of a position player taking the mound to pitch.
And when it finally happened in the eighth inning of Tuesday night's 14-6 loss to the Diamondbacks, the man who was given the ball for a surprise relief appearance was one few would have ever predicted would be the first to perform such a feat: Clint Robinson.
"It's never something you want to do," manager Matt Williams said. "But sometimes in games like this, we just can't stretch our bullpen any further."
So it was that Robinson, the 30-year-old rookie first baseman/left fielder, found himself taking the mound at Chase Field to pitch the bottom of the eighth inning in a real, live, major-league ballgame. And then all he did was toss a scoreless frame, retiring three of the four batters he faced and notching a strikeout in the process.
How exactly did Robinson become the choice for this particular duty? Well, he did pitch in high school in Dothan, Ala., way back in 2003. And he (along with fellow bench player Tyler Moore) had let the coaching staff know previously he could do it if needed some day. So with the Nationals getting shellacked Tuesday night, three relievers having already pitched and others needed to be saved for the rest of this road trip, Williams approached both Robinson and Moore in the dugout and asked if either wanted to pitch.
"Yeah, I'll do it," Robinson replied. "Absolutely."
"OK," Williams informed him. "You got the eighth inning."
Robinson's first career inning got off to a shaky start — he allowed a base hit to David Peralta on an 80-mph fastball — but he quickly found his groove. Robinson proceeded to retire the next three batters, including veteran second baseman Aaron Hill via strikeout, prompting the Nationals dugout to shout for the ball to be tossed their way to be authenticated and presented to Robinson for display on his mantel.
He wound up throwing seven of his nine pitches for strikes, featuring a fastball that sat at 80-82 mph and a slider that registered between 72-74 mph. Those radar gun readings were down considerably from the last time he pitched as a high school senior, when he said he regularly threw in the low-90s.
"I threw quite a bit harder," he said. "I'm kind of a big guy and had a decent arm. But you take 12 years off from pitching, I didn't really expect it to be there."
Robinson had no idea he was the first position player in Nationals history to pitch. In fact, the Expos/Nationals franchise hadn't put a position player on the mound since July 20, 1990, when both Junior Noboa and Dave Martinez appeared during a 12-6 loss at Houston.
Plenty of Nationals over the last decade had desperately wanted to make their pitching debuts, with Adam Dunn, Adam LaRoche and Bryce Harper at the top of the list. Previous managers, though, either were opposed to the idea or never found themselves quite desperate enough to go through with it.
When it finally happened Tuesday, nobody exactly knew how to react. Catcher Wilson Ramos had no idea what was in Robinson's repertoire until the two met at the mound at the start of the inning.
"He just told me: 'Fastball, slider. That's it,'" Ramos said. "I called it. He never shook me off."
Robinson took everything in stride, trying to downplay the significance of this given the way the team struggled throughout Tuesday's game.
"To be honest with you, to me it's not really that big a deal," he said. "It's just one game. I was just helping out. It's cool to think about now, but I was just kind of in the moment, in the zone. I don't really want that attention when we're losing a game like that."
Robinson did emerge from the experience with an appreciation for the physical toll pitching in the big leagues takes.
"I'm sure I won't be feeling too hot tomorrow," he said. "I have a new respect for what those guys go out there and do. I've got little sores in my body that I usually don't have after a game."
Robinson also emerged with a souvenir ball and a great story to tell his grandkids some day.
"Yeah, it's something I never thought I would do," he said. "Just last year I was in L.A. wondering if I'm ever going to get my first big-league hit. And now I've got my first major-league strikeout. So it's just checking off another thing on the baseball bucket list for me."