Ward thankful for opportunity to debut with Nats

Before joining the Nationals, Thaddeus Ward spent parts of four unusual seasons in the Red Sox’s minor league system as their fifth-round draft pick from the University of Central Florida in 2018.

After being drafted, the right-hander appeared in only 11 games at low Single-A in the second half of the 2018 season. In his first full professional season in 2019, he went 8-5 with a 2.14 ERA, 1.156 WHIP and 157 strikeouts over 25 starts between low Single-A and High-A.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and shut down the 2020 minor league season, just as Ward was peaking as the No. 9-ranked prospect on Boston’s farm, per MLB Pipeline.

Tommy John surgery limited Ward to just two starts in 2021, a major setback for any pitcher. And in his return to action last year, he made only 13 starts with a 2.28 ERA, 1.149 WHIP and 66 strikeouts across four minor league levels, topping out at Double-A.

But even after a 2.84 ERA in four Arizona Fall League appearances, Ward had not done enough to convince the Red Sox to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.

On Dec. 7, the Nationals selected Ward with the No. 1 overall pick in the Rule 5 draft at the Winter Meetings in San Diego. He was one of the highest-ranked pitching prospects available.

Ward entered spring training with his new team and a new opportunity to be stretched out as a starter, with most of his outings likely coming in the form of multi-inning relief. But camp was no walk in the park, and after posting a 2.92 ERA with 16 strikeouts in Grapefruit League play, Ward finally made his first major league Opening Day roster as a long man in the Nationals bullpen.

“It's awesome. I'm really, really excited to be here,” Ward said before Opening Day on Thursday. “I'm really excited for the opportunity. And obviously, I'm thankful for the team for kind of seeing value in me and believing that I'll be able to make it to the roster here. I'm incredibly thankful, really.”

As a Rule 5 draftee, Ward had to make the major league roster and then stay with the team throughout the season, or else be offered back to the Red Sox. One game down.

A certain confidence is instilled in a player when a team elects to bring him over from another organization, especially with the No. 1 pick.

“Definitely. It's definitely a good feeling,” the 26-year-old said. “And especially, it's tough after coming back from the pandemic and then Tommy John back-to-back years, missing out on two and a half years of playing baseball. And then coming out and having a team and be like, 'OK, we think he's ready. We believe in him. So we're gonna take him.' It's a really good feeling.”

Ward didn’t appear in the season-opening loss to the Braves. But his opportunity to make his major league debut figures to come at some point during this six-game homestand to begin the regular season. He did get a small taste of what it’s like pitching at Nationals Park on Tuesday, tossing a scoreless ninth inning in an exhibition win against the Yankees and earning the unofficial save in the process.

“Nerves, one hundred percent, are definitely going to be a big part of it,” Ward said of his upcoming debut. “I think having had the inning to work with out there on Tuesday, I think having that inning kind of helped me get a little bit acclimated to what the field looks like when you're pitching on it. So it won't be the first time I'm throwing off that mound, which will definitely be helpful. I mean, there's gonna be a lot of nerves, there's gonna be a lot of anxiety and a lot of excitement. And I'm just kind of looking forward to getting all those feelings, embracing it and going out there and just trying to compete.”

Whenever that opportunity comes and after the nerves have settled, Ward will be able to demonstrate the arsenal that helped him make the team out of spring training, including his 60-grade slider.

“I'm a big sinker/slider guy and I mix in a decent amount of cutters and four-seams,” he said. “But really sticking to that slider and sticking to my guns and really kind of showcasing my abilities with that is kind of what helped me kind of break through with the team. And then obviously, the clubhouse has been great. The guys have really been helping me out, kind of showing me the ropes. And I'm just trying to be a good clubhouse guy.”

A starter throughout his minor league career, Ward is now transitioning to a multi-inning reliever role, something his new bullpen mates are assisting him with. Though with his experience, he is available to make a spot start if the circumstances call for it.

“I'm getting more comfortable with it. It's another way the guys around here have really been helping me out a lot,” he said of his move to the ‘pen. “A lot of the bullpen guys kind of started off as starters at some point in their career and whatnot, so they've been extremely helpful in helping me try to find different ways to make sure my body is good to go for each and every day. So far, it's been going well, it's been a pretty smooth transition. And I had expected to continue to be like that because of the great support system I have here with the guys helping me kind of get used to being in that role.”

That versatility is an added tool in Ward’s back pocket, which undoubtedly played a role in his addition to the roster.

“I think having that versatility is another kind of reason that I was able to add some value,” he said. “Having the ability to go out and start a game if they're in a pinch, or if they need somebody to bridge multiple innings. I think kind of having that in the back pocket is something that really kind of increased my value with how the team saw me. They saw me as a guy that they can send out there and he can just eat innings. And so I think that's probably a pretty big reason of what really happened the past couple of months.”

What happens in the coming months, of course, is up to Ward himself. He needs to continue pitching well throughout the year to give the Nationals a reason to keep him, not just for this season but for the long term as well.

That first step will be whenever he takes the mound in a big league game for the first time in the next few days. And whenever that is, he’ll have a big support group watching in the stands.

“My in-laws got here yesterday, my parents are getting here today and they're all staying through the weekend,” Ward said. “And then my wife has more family that lives in Baltimore, or right outside Baltimore, so they're gonna be here at almost every game anyway.”

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