PITTSBURGH – Everyone involved ended up being OK, so they could laugh about it afterwards. But in the moment, it looked serious and scary.
During Jackson Rutledge’s ragged major league debut on Wednesday, the 24-year-old was most concerned about the 10 hits and seven runs he allowed. Little did he know he needed to be wary of friendly fire, too.
In the bottom of the fourth inning after drawing a one-out walk, Ji Hwan Bae took off to steal second base. Drew Millas, catching his good friend Rutledge’s debut, caught the pitch from the right-hander and popped up to attempt to throw Bae out.
Unfortunately, the ball never reached CJ Abrams covering the bag.
Instead, it ricocheted off the 6-foot-8 pitcher’s head as he attempted to duck out of the way and landed in right field, allowing Bae to advance to third.
To be sure, it was a scary moment in real time. Millas threw hard and the ball plucked Rutledge right in the back of the head hard enough to launch into the outfield. Manager Davey Martinez and the training staff were quick to emerge from the Nationals dugout as the rest of the infield stood in shock and worry.
But thankfully, Rutledge was fine and remained in the game. He was even in good spirits afterwards despite a rough first outing.
“Honestly, on that play, I was kind of saying thank you for running because I know Millas is gonna throw him out,” he said. “He's got a great arm. In Double-A and Triple-A with him, he's thrown out a lot of guys for me. And then I heard the ball coming at me. Yeah, I gotta work on getting out of the way a little bit more. But yeah, I'm OK, so we're good there. Obviously, I was able to continue going. But yeah, just ... it was weird. Weird day.”
Millas, meanwhile, was horrified at what he had done. He was first concerned about his friend’s health and then embarrassed that he had hit his own pitcher with a throw to second.
“Honestly, it was one of the weirdest nights of my life. I was so embarrassed before that first of all,” Millas said of his first career home run he would hit in the next inning. “Got a hanging curveball that I was looking for and hit it over the fence, and I just didn't know how to feel. Thankfully, Ruts OK, so it made everything better. But the homer itself, like I don't know if I could enjoy it because I thought Rut was down bad. I'm happy he's OK. And I'm happy I hit my homer, so it ended up working out OK.”
Personally, I really appreciated how the two rookies were able to laugh about the whole situation. And I have to admit, it took every ounce of my willpower to not laugh out loud along with them while conducting the postgame interview.
Millas’ description of the play was particularly funny.
“Yes, of course, of course. I knew it was coming,” he laughed in response to if he could give his account of what happened. “So I got a high fastball from Rut. And when I transferred it, I got like a palm ball. But I still got like enough on it to throw it hard. I'm pretty sure I threw it pretty hard still. And it came out and I just choked it because I had such a deep grip on the ball. I saw it. It lined up perfectly and he turned his head to second. I couldn't believe that it smoked him. And right away, I thought he was gonna be hurt. Because I got it. I still threw the ball well. I felt like I threw it hard. And that's why I was worried like to the top at that point.
“But when he turned around and started smiling at me, just a weight just fell off my shoulders. Because me and Rut are very, very good friends, and obviously I don't want anything bad to happen to him, especially from a ball from a catcher when somebody is stealing. But I'm glad he's OK. I'm thankful that he's OK.”
Rutledge and Millas both grew up in the greater St. Louis area and are only 15 months apart in age. They became good friends coming up together through the Nats’ minor league system, which made Wednesday’s mishap easier to laugh about.
“Yeah, it's great,” Rutledge said of having familiar faces already on the Nats roster. “Especially in my first start throwing to Drew, who I've known for years. We're both from St. Louis. That was definitely something that helped relax me before the game.”
And this was not the first time this has happened. Millas has come close to hitting Rutledge before in the minor leagues.
“He's gotten close a couple of times,” Rutledge said with a laugh. “I think actually it was my Triple-A debut, he got pretty close. He was like, 'Hey, man, you need to duck a little bit more.' So, I tried to duck a little bit more, but I'm a big guy and sometimes it's hard to do. So we're working on it.”
Something about debuts. And it’s not quite clear on what exactly they are working on because the big hurler can’t get smaller on the mound. That change probably has to come from Millas’ side.
“I actually throw the ball low often,” the backstop said. “So that was way lower than I've thrown all year. But I generally keep the ball very, very low and hard, and he knows that. And I think I've come close to hitting him. There's been throws, good throws, that have come close to hitting him, too. But today was, like I said, choked and like extra low.”
Despite the weird play and the final stat line, Millas did like what he saw from Rutledge behind the plate as he looks forward to his next start with the Nats.
“It was good,” Millas siad. “There were some unfortunate breaks early on. I think he battled back well from that. He showed what kind of stuff he had. He had some good pitches throughout the course of the game that proved that he can get hitters out. It's just a matter of putting it all together. And I think once he learns to get ahead and start pounding the zone and be confident in his stuff 24/7, I think he's gonna be really, really good.”