Sammy Solis hadn't faced a big league hitter in 43 days, so the left-hander was perhaps a bit jittery when he took the mound in the seventh inning at Nationals Park last night and promptly threw a first-pitch fastball to the Diamondbacks' Socrates Brito that sailed more than a foot over the top of the strike zone.
"I would say a few butterflies in there," Solis admitted afterward. "But once I got past the first pitch, it was all good. Right back to the comfort zone of being on the mound."
Indeed, the left-hander looked quite comfortable the rest of the way, throwing eight of his next 11 pitches for strikes en route to a 1-2-3 inning of relief and a hold in the Nationals' 4-2 victory over Arizona.
"He was awesome," manager Dusty Baker said. "He said he was ready. We threw him right in the fire. He showed us he was ready."
After missing seven weeks with shoulder inflammation, Solis now faces a critical sprint during the final week of the regular season. The Nationals would love to include him in their postseason bullpen, especially against a Dodgers lineup that has been the majors' least productive against left-handers, but he first needs to prove to them he's ready for that responsibility.
Solis passed the first test last night, and he was glad that test came in a big spot, with the Nationals leading by two runs late.
"Absolutely, because honestly, I want to be there," he said. "I expect to be there. And having my name called in later innings in a close game, first game back, is huge having a manager with that kind of confidence in you."
Solis was the Nationals' most effective left-hander most of the season, with a 2.35 ERA in 34 appearances. Still a rookie at age 28, he showed the ability to retire batters from both sides of the plate, with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s.
But Solis, who came through the minors as a starter and only recently was converted to a reliever after dealing with several arm injuries, has never experienced this kind of workload before. And so when he landed on the disabled list last month, there was legitimate reason to question whether he'd be able to make it back in time.
The Nationals have been getting strong work from lefties Marc Rzepczynski, Sean Burnett and Oliver Perez this month, but those three perform far better when used strictly to match up against one or two left-handed batters. Solis' success against righties allows Baker to use him for full innings.
"That's big, because you don't have to change pitchers," the manager said. "We're not going to have all these pitchers when you get to the postseason. You're going to have to let some righties face lefties, and some lefties face righties, or else you'll go through your whole bullpen, and you play extra-inning games you'll be out of pitching. So that's huge. Big for us."