Like every kid who grows up with a baseball in one hand, a bat in the other and the imagination to believe anything is possible, Lucas Giolito had played out his major league debut in his own mind plenty of times.
But did he ever envision that debut being interrupted twice by rain, the second delay dragging on long enough to prevent him from re-taking the mound despite his effectiveness?
“Not once,” the 21-year-old said with a laugh. “I never saw rain in the forecast at all. I thought it would be like 72 degrees, sunny, all that stuff. That’s how I dreamt it. But I’ll take what I can get. I mean, an MLB debut is an MLB debut. I’m glad I pitched well.”
He did more than pitch well. The start may have been abbreviated to only four innings, but the results couldn’t have been much better. Giolito shut out the Mets during his time on the mound, allowing just one hit and doing everything within his power to set up the Nationals for a 5-0 victory.
By rule, Giolito could not be awarded an actual win, because he did not complete the requisite five innings of work. But make no mistake, he was the most effective pitcher the Nationals sent to the mound on this night, and he was as responsible as anybody for ensuring his team’s victory.
“The guys responded to him,” manager Dusty Baker said. “The fans responded well to him. It was a good day overall.”
Good for the Nationals, who beat the Mets for the second straight night and have expanded their lead in the National League East to 4 1/2 games over the second-place Marlins. And good for Giolito, the consensus No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball who looked every bit the part in his highly anticipated unveiling.
“I thought he threw great,” said right fielder Bryce Harper, who knows a thing or two about hyped-up debuts. “He’s got a great mentality going out there, didn’t really let anything affect him at all. Really just went out there and pitched to his ability. And if he can do that, he’s going to help us.”
Giolito arrived at Nationals Park early in the afternoon, with plenty of time to contemplate what was about to take place. He had learned a couple of days earlier that he was getting the call, all the way up from Double-A Harrisburg, and had time to let family members and friends know so they could arrange to meet him in Washington for this once-in-a-lifetime event.
Teammates and coaches tried to avoid oversaturating his mind with gobs of advice, but perhaps the most important tidbit he picked up came from his 67-year-old manager.
“Same advice I got from Hank Aaron,” Baker told him. “Be nervous, but don’t be scared. I mean, you belong here.”
“That’s just what I tried to prove,” the rookie said.
Giolito’s pregame routine, though, was delayed thanks to the first of the evening’s two storms, which pushed back first pitch 55 minutes. The kid still got a nice ovation as he walked in from the bullpen shortly before 8 p.m., then another when he took the mound and was handed the game ball by Army Secretary Eric Fanning.
There were perhaps a few (understandable) jitters early, leading to several fastballs up and out of the zone in the top of the first, but Giolito still escaped his first frame having allowed only Curtis Granderson’s leadoff single.
Now settled in, the 21-year-old really found his groove after that. He needed only nine pitches to complete the second inning, then another nine to complete the third. And thanks to an inning-ending double play, he walked off the mound in the fourth inning having thrown a mere 45 pitches.
“I was very impressed,” catcher Wilson Ramos said through interpreter Octavio Martinez. “A lot of young kids come out here, and in their first outing they’re very nervous and seem like they’re pressured and they’re all over the place with their pitches. But he was very relaxed and hitting his spots really well, and he did a great job. Except for the rain.”
Ah, yes, the rain. The skies opened for the second time as the Nationals were batting in the bottom of the fourth, so Giolito’s night came to an abrupt and premature conclusion. By the time the field was playable again, 1 hour and 25 minutes had passed, too lengthy of a delay for the Nationals to comfortably send their top prospect back to the mound.
“When it got to about 45 minutes to an hour,” Baker said, “then we decided that was enough and it wasn’t worth risking it.”
What the Nationals did see of Giolito was mighty impressive. Though he didn’t overpower the Mets lineup and induce a bunch of swings and misses, he did keep the ball in the strike zone (29 of his 45 pitches) and induce weak contact.
That was particularly encouraging from a 6-foot-6 right-hander who is billed as a classic power pitcher but showed on this night he can also get outs on the ground.
What happens next? That remains to be seen. Giolito’s promotion was a direct response to Stephen Strasburg’s placement on the disabled list with a strained upper neck. The guy who made perhaps the most-hyped debut in baseball history six summers ago appears to be fine, though, and he’s eligible to return as soon as Friday.
It’s possible Giolito’s first stint in the majors will be a brief one. Right now, though, that’s the last thing on his mind.
“I know Stras got hurt, and I’m hoping that he can get better as soon as possible, because he’s going to win games for this team,” Giolito said. “I obviously want to do the same thing, but it’s up to the higher-up guys. Whatever they want is whatever they want, and I’m just going to go out and compete whenever I’m given the opportunity.”