Parker stares down Dodgers and wins MLB debut for Nats (updated)

LOS ANGELES – Far more highly touted pitchers have made their major league debuts for the Nationals in the last 14 years than Mitchell Parker. There were first-round picks (Lucas Giolito, Erick Fedde, Cade Cavalli, Jackson Rutledge) and there were high-profile trade acquisitions (Joe Ross).

But none of them – plus a host of others in between – was able to do what Parker did tonight. Not since Stephen Strasburg’s historic performance on June 8, 2010, had a rookie starter made his big league debut for the Nationals and been credited with a win.

That Parker was the one to finally snap a streak that had reached 17 winless debuts was remarkable enough. That he did it by beating one of the most intimidating lineups he’s likely to ever see during the course of his career made this truly special.

With five strong innings of two-run ball, this previously unknown, 24-year-old left-hander led the Nats to a stirring, 6-4 victory over the Dodgers on Jackie Robinson Day and authored his name into club lore in the process.

"The kid has a very low heartbeat," manager Davey Martinez said. "I've known that for a while. Nothing seems to faze him. ... That's a tough team to face. And he did really, really well."

Parker, the organization’s fifth-round pick in the 2020 Draft and 21st ranked prospect entering this season, doesn’t have the pedigree of other young pitchers in the system. But he earned this assignment because of his 150-strikeout performance last year at Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Rochester, because of the poise he showed in his first big league camp this spring and (admittedly) because he lined up better than others to take a start that would’ve gone to Josiah Gray if not for his recent forearm injury.

With family and friends watching – and screaming – from a small pocket of a crowd of 42,677, the Albuquerque native stared down a lineup of All-Stars and MVPs and not only lived to tell about it. He thrived.

And thanks to the efforts of four relievers (Matt Barnes, Dylan Floro, Hunter Harvey, Kyle Finnegan) who followed, Parker emerged with the win, the first National since Strasburg to do that in his major league debut.

"Speechless," he said when informed of that fact. "That's awesome. That's really awesome."

The best thing the Nats could do to put Parker’s mind at ease before he took the mound? Give him a lead to work with. Alas, they hadn’t scored a first-inning run in any of their first 15 games this season, the only team in the majors with that dubious distinction.

So imagine the combination of shock and relief emanating from the visitors dugout tonight when CJ Abrams led off the game with a double, took third on Lane Thomas’ groundout and then scored on Tyler Glasnow’s wild pitch for a quick 1-0 lead.

"It was great," Martinez said of the early run. "The guys played with a lot of energy. It was a tough loss for us yesterday (in Oakland). They handled themselves really well today."

Thus did Parker make the jog out for the first time as a big leaguer with some cushion, wearing not the No. 70 he'll finally don later this week in his second start but the same No. 42 every major leaguer wore today in honor of Robinson. And when he proceeded to blow a 95 mph fastball past Mookie Betts for his first career strikeout, the message for the evening was delivered: The kid was ready for this most daunting of assignments.

"For it to be someone like that, with a track record like that," he said, "it's awesome."

Parker would allow the tying run in the bottom of the first, giving up singles to Shohei Ohtani and Freddie Freeman (not that there was any shame in that) and then a sacrifice fly to Will Smith. He would surrender another run in the bottom of the second, with Max Muncy doubling, then scoring on a pair of fly ball outs. All things considered, it could’ve been a lot worse.

Now came the real challenge: Facing that lineup a second time. Which Parker handled with the poise of a seasoned veteran. He retired the top of the lineup in order in the third inning, striking out Ohtani with a nasty curveball. He navigated his way through the fourth with ease, though with a high pitch count of 75, there was some reason to wonder if that might be the end of his night.

It was not. Given the opportunity to return for the fifth, Parker rewarded his manager’s faith with his best inning of the night. He retired Chris Taylor and Miguel Rojas in short order, then struck out Betts for the second time, needing only three pitches in this encounter, and returned to the dugout to high-fives after an 81-pitch performance he’ll never forget. He retired 12 of the last 13 batters he faced, and the only one who reached during that span did so via infield single.

"Imagining it and actually living through it are two very different things," he said. "It was a special experience."

And Parker departed with his team leading by four runs, thanks to a sustained offensive attack that included two big blasts from a couple of young infielders.

Abrams continued his strong road trip with a leadoff homer in the third, launching a 3-2 fastball to right-center for his fourth home run of the season. He now has six hits in six games on the West Coast, four of them of the extra-base variety.

Doubles by Jesse Winker and Joey Gallo added another run in the third. And then two innings later, Luis García Jr. put a definitive stamp on things with one of the best at-bats of his career. Having worked the count full against Glasnow, he proceeded to drive a 3-2 slider the other way for a massive, three-run homer to left-center and a 6-2 lead that would propel his rookie teammate to a memorable MLB debut victory.

"To be honest, he didn't impress me much," García said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "I know what he has. I faced him in spring training. He's a great pitcher. He has great stuff. And I'm very happy for this moment for him, because I knew what he's capable of."

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