There is a similar sense of fleeting opportunity that marks the seasons Garrett Mock and J.D. Martin will both begin tomorrow, even if the path each Nationals pitcher took to this point couldn't be much different.
Mock, a 26-year-old Texas native with dynamic stuff, has remained at the top of the Nationals' list of prospects for the last three years, even as he's struggled to pair the talent scouts see oozing out of him with matching results. Martin, 27 and Californian in every sense of the word, was a first-round pick of the Indians in 2001, but spent parts of nine seasons in the minors before finally making his big-league debut last year. He is cool and efficient, not one to waste words or pitches, but coaxed respectable results out of his less-than-riveting stuff.
And now both right-handers are here, in the latter half of their 20s, fighting a slew of younger hopefuls and even each other for the last one or two spots in the Nationals' rotation. Mock and Martin, who both pitch tomorrow in split-squad games, know their time is now -- or at least, now looks better than later.
A year from now, Stephen Strasburg is all but a lock to be in the Nationals' rotation with John Lannan and Jason Marquis. Jordan Zimmermann could well be there, too, if the impressive young right-hander recovers this year from Tommy John surgery. So could Chien-Ming Wang, assuming he returns from shoulder surgery, and Scott Olsen may still also factor into the Nationals' plans.
There might be one spot in next year's rotation that isn't locked down, and most of the Nationals' young pitchers haven't built a resume to stake a claim to it. It's especially important for Mock and Martin to do that now.
Mock's case is the most interesting for the Nationals, who traded for him in 2006 largely because of general manager Mike Rizzo, who had just been hired as the assistant GM from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Rizzo drafted Mock in 2004 and brought him over with Matt Chico in the trade that sent Livan Hernandez to the Diamondbacks. Mock has an impressive four-pitch arsenal that, on his good days, makes him "a challenge for major-league hitters," according to manager Jim Riggleman. But he's been bewitched by a tendency to nibble around the edges of the plate, rather than attack hitters, and has seen his pitch counts, walk totals and ERA rise because of it.
The Nationals' coaching staff has talked to Mock about the issue for years, and he spoke confidently about making a change on Wednesday.
"It's a decision that I make," Mock said. "There are going to be situations that come up this season, tighter situations with runners on or whatever. I have to make the decision to attack guys. That's where the battle is."
Martin, who was 5-4 with a 4.44 ERA last season, doesn't have nearly the range of quality pitches that Mock does. But he threw first-pitch strikes to 59 percent of hitters last year, and while hitters made contact on 89 percent of his pitches, they hit .277 on balls put in play -- not a great average against, but not bad enough to get him killed, either. Mock's BABIP (batting average on balls in play), by comparison, was .360 last year.
Martin is what's become the prototype for Nationals pitchers -- guys with less-than-overpowering stuff who spot their two-seam fastball, work ahead and get quick outs. If he's going to make the team, it will be by working that way.
"I approach (the competition) the same way as though the spot's already taken," Martin said. "I'm going to work hard regardless. I'm not going to work any less hard than I would have."
Tomorrow's starts -- for Mock against Houston and for Martin against Florida -- don't guarantee or rule out rotation spots by any means. But time is on the side of neither pitcher, and opportunity, while here for the moment, could soon fade away.
"It's nice to know they believe I can compete on the major-league level," said Mock, who added he doesn't look at the battle for spots as putting himself in competition with a teammate. "If I'm going to go out and go 2-2, 3-2 on everybody, go from 0-2 and 3-2 on everybody, they don't want that. It's all based on, if I go out and attack hitters, then I can go out and contend."