PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Well, after six weeks, we’re finally about done down here in Florida.
Today marks the last day on the Nationals’ Grapefruit League schedule, and once this afternoon’s game against the Mets is complete, only Saturday’s exhibition at Nationals Park and a couple of off-days stand in between us and opening day.
Jordan Zimmermann will get the ball for the Nats today at Tradition Field, while back at the Nats’ minor league complex in Viera, Doug Fister will throw around 60-65 pitches in a minor league game. I’m not sure what time Fister is scheduled to take the hill, but I’ll pass along an update on his outing as soon as I have something.
For me, one of the more enjoyable parts of this job is speaking with players who have just gotten their first call-up to the big leagues. It often represents the culmination of a long journey through small minor league towns, living out of dingy hotel rooms and making very little money just chasing a dream. Sometimes, the player truly wasn’t sure whether that dream would ever become a reality.
This is certainly the case for Aaron Barrett, a 26-year-old right-hander who in 2010, shortly after the Nats selected him in the ninth round of the First-Year Player Draft, totally lost his command. He had trouble completing a pitcher’s most basic task - throwing the ball to the catcher - and developed what’s known as the “yips.”
On Wednesday afternoon, however, Barrett stood outside the visiting clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter with a gigantic smile on his face. Less than 24 hours after being told that he had made the Nationals’ opening day roster as a reliever, Barrett chatted with a few reporters for nearly six minutes, describing the emotions of his first big league call-up.
During that nearly six-minute conversation, the smile didn’t leave Barrett’s face once.
“It was pretty surreal,” Barrett said. “It was one of those moments where I’d dreamed all my life about initially getting the call. For me, I pictured myself being at Double-A, Triple-A and getting the call up for that experience. But to get the call to make the team out of camp, it was unbelievable. Just a great feeling.”
For Barrett, word that he was making the team came around the same time that five fellow players were finding out that they were being cut. The Nationals released Jamey Carroll and Chris Young following Tuesday’s game, and they optioned Tyler Moore, Ryan Mattheus and Xavier Cedeno to Triple-A.
There were a handful of disappointed ballplayers walking out of manager Matt Williams’ office late that afternoon, and when Barrett was told Williams and pitching coach Steve McCatty wanted to meet with him, he wasn’t sure if he was going to be one of them.
“I was in the weight room doing some workouts and they called me in,” Barrett said. “I knew they were going to say something at some point and they call me in and it was just Williams and McCatty. Williams says, ‘Hey, we have some tough decisions that we have to make, and you’re one of those tough decisions.’ He looked at me, and it was a five- to 10-second pause there that I thought was gonna last for ... I think it lasted like 10 minutes. And then he dropped the news. He said, ‘Congratulations, you made the team.’
“I just got very emotional, started tearing up a bit, tears of joy. McCatty gave me a hug and I started getting congratulations. The guys that were still left in the clubhouse, they found out and gave me big hugs, so it was just overall an unbelievable experience. Then right after that happened, I FaceTimed my wife in the dugout and I was just overwhelmed with tears. To get to this point, it was just so surreal.
“I didn’t really know what to think (when they called me in). Obviously, that stuff is in their hands. I think I put myself in a good position. Whatever happens, happens. I was OK with it. I think both crossed my mind. Like, I could be going down, I could make the team. And then when they were pausing for about 10 seconds there, I was like, ‘OK, what’s going on?’ But it’s just such an amazing feeling. Then to get out there (Wednesday) and get back on the bump competing, knowing I made the team, it just felt really good.”
Barrett mentioned his wife, Kendyl, who supported him both emotionally and financially through his minor league years. Kendyl works as a wedding planner and event coordinator, jobs that allowed her husband to keep plugging away as he progressed from the New York-Penn League to low Single-A Hagerstown, to high Single-A Potomac and then to Double-A Harrisburg last season, where he posted a 2.15 ERA and struck out 69 batters in 50 1/3 innings.
“She was so shocked,” Barrett said. “We’ve been through a lot as far as the whole minor leagues. We’ve been through that stuff. She’s working and supported me throughout the whole minor leagues. To finally get that call that I made the team, she was just overwhelmed. She started crying. I started crying. It was just an awesome moment that I’ll never forget.”
Barrett impressed Nats coaches and scouts this spring with his mid-90s fastball and a wipeout slider, and in 10 2/3 spring innings, he hasn’t allowed a single run. The right-hander has come a long way since being unable to find the strike zone as a member of the Vermont Lake Monsters in 2010, which he says makes this all the more enjoyable.
“You come into camp, and for me it was looking to get a few innings here and there, it was my first camp, just got added to the roster,” Barrett said. “I put myself in position to make the team, and now to be on the team, competing, now let’s go win some ballgames. Just an unreal experience. I’m ready to help the ballclub, in whatever role that is.”
Today’s quote of the day, written atop the morning schedule sheet: “PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY.”