Nats confident Giolito can handle pressure of tonight's debut

The Nationals have seen their share of players take the field for much-hyped, big league debuts during their first 12 seasons of existence. Stephen Strasburg's inaugural appearance in 2010, of course, tops the list, but Bryce Harper's arrival in 2012 stands right alongside it.

And more than just die-hard fans recognized the significance of the first games in the careers of top prospects like Jordan Zimmermann, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Ian Desmond, Drew Storen and (once-upon-a-time) Ryan Zimmerman.

Tonight, though, offers another debut to add to the list, one that deserves to be included on this list. When Lucas Giolito takes the mound shortly after 7 p.m., the Nationals' latest and - outside of Strasburg - best pitching prospect in club history will find himself in the spotlight.

And unlike in most of those previous cases, Giolito's debut will come in a game of real significance, against the division rival Mets in the thick of a pennant race.


The challenge facing the Nationals, then, is to try to downplay the significance of this and make Giolito feel as comfortable as possible, despite all the attention that will surround him.

"He's not feeling the hype," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "It's not going to be another day at the office for him, because there's going to be a second deck on the stadium that he pitches in this time. But he's a confident kid that I think will handle the pressure of his major league debut against a really good team like the New York Mets in stride, and give us a chance to win the baseball game."

Giolito's maturity at 21 played a big role in the Nationals' somewhat surprising decision to promote him all the way from Double-A Harrisburg. A first-round draft pick in 2012, the 6-foot-6 right-hander has displayed impressive poise throughout his brief professional career, whether dealing with the Tommy John surgery that came shortly after he was drafted or with the attention that came after that for being the top-rated pitching prospect in baseball.

A devastating repertoire of pitches - a high-90s fastball, a knee-buckling breaking ball and an ever-improving changeup - doesn't hurt, either, and makes Giolito about as perfect a pitching specimen as they get.

The Nationals saw first-hand this spring how the young pitcher conducted himself among more experienced players in his first big league camp. He impressed everyone he encountered, showing restraint when needed but also intellectual curiosity when it was called for.

Because of that, Giolito's new teammates have no fear about his ability to handle what awaits him tonight.

"He knows what to do," said Harper, who is two years Giolito's elder. "He knows how to pitch, he knows how to go about it. ... To be able to have a guy like this, look at the Mets last year. They brought up (Noah) Syndergaard and (Steven) Matz and really took advantage of the East and took advantage of everybody. So hopefully Giolito can come up here and do what he can, throw the ball a billion, and have the curveball like he does and just play this game hard. I'm looking forward to watching him from right field tomorrow."

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