"Composed" Parker preps for major challenge in MLB debut

OAKLAND, Calif. – The mere fact he was being called up by the Nationals to make his major league debut was reason enough to leave Mitchell Parker’s head spinning. Then the 24-year-old left-hander realized where he would be making that debut (Dodger Stadium), when he would be making that debut (Jackie Robinson Day) and who he would be facing in that debut (Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani, Freddie Freeman).

How could Parker not have a million thoughts racing through his mind as he contemplates what the scene will be like tonight?

“I gave myself a couple minutes, but I’m trying not to,” he said. “I’m trying not to overthink anything. Just trying to get out there and do a job for the team. That’s all we really want to.”

The Nationals are giving Parker that opportunity, and they’re doing so with as tough a challenge as any rookie is ever likely to face in his first major league start. There’s every reason to fear this will turn out disastrous for the rookie pitcher.

But after watching him throughout his first big league camp this spring in Florida, Davey Martinez was struck by something about Parker. Something beyond his pitching repertoire.

“It just seemed like nothing really rattled him,” the manager said. “He’s very composed. He’s got a good mix of pitches. He’s going to go out there and hopefully keep us in the game.”

Parker is hardly the most hyped prospect to debut for the Nationals through the years. He was a fifth-round pick in the 2020 Draft out of San Jacinto Junior College in Texas. He owns a 4.15 ERA and 1.401 WHIP in 76 total minor league games the last three-plus seasons. He checks in at No. 21 on the organization’s prospects list, according to MLB Pipeline.

But the Nats added him to their 40-man roster over the winter, protecting him from being lost in the Rule 5 Draft and hinting at the possibility he could be in their plans this season. The 6-foot-4 lefty led the organization with 150 strikeouts last year at Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Rochester. And he’s averaged more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings at every stop he’s made in the minors, using a rising fastball and dropping curveball combo to find success against professional hitters.

So, Parker was on the team’s radar coming out of spring training. But few would’ve expected his call to come this soon. Jackson Rutledge, his former college teammate selected in the first round of the 2019 Draft, was positioned to be the first starter promoted when a need arose.

But when Josiah Gray landed on the 15-day injured list with a flexor strain in his right elbow and forearm, Joan Adon was recalled from Rochester to fill his rotation spot because it lined up best with his day to pitch. And when Rutledge was struck in the right foot by a line drive Wednesday, his availability suddenly came into question.

So the call went to Parker, who held Lehigh Valley to one hit and one walk over four strong innings in his season debut. He was summoned Friday to meet with Rochester manager Matt LeCroy, who told him he should call his parents because he had good news to share. He flew to the Bay Area on Saturday and joined the team at Oakland Coliseum on Sunday to play catch in a big league stadium for the first time and get acclimated with everything before taking the team charter to Los Angeles following the game.

“Just trying to take it all in,” he said. “And make sure to breathe.”

When he takes the mound tonight, Parker will become the 31st rookie starter to make his major league debut for the Nationals since 2005. And he’ll be looking to do something almost none of his predecessors did: Win the game.

Those previous 30 starters went 4-16 with 10 no-decisions in their debuts. The last one to be credited with a win: Stephen Strasburg, way back on June 8, 2010. Everyone since is 0-11 with six no-decisions.

The Albuquerque native said he’ll have at least eight family members and friends in attendance tonight. They can only hope they get to witness something special.

“Everybody thinks about what it will be your first time out there,” Parker said. “Hopefully this exceeds everything we were dreaming about. It should be fun.”

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