ATLANTA - Close to 1,500 days since his last appearance in the major leagues, Aaron Barrett had many a time to dream about returning to the mound in another regular season game.
Aug. 5, 2015 to Sept. 7, 2019.
Rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and then a brutal broken arm, Barrett went through so much to get back. Then on a warm night, six minutes from his offseason home, wearing the jersey of the Nationals again and with his whole family and many of his friends in attendance cheering him on, Barrett ran onto the field and pitched against the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park.
It was the fifth inning of a critical game for his Nats. After walking the first batter he faced on four pitches, Barrett went to work and recorded three outs in a row, including striking out 2018 National League Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuña Jr. for the second out, helping end the frame and keep the score intact.
He had done it. Barrett was finally back doing the job he loved. So much was rolling through his mind as he held the ball in his glove and stared into home plate for the sign from catcher Yan Gomes.
“A lot of things,” Barrett said. “Obviously emotional, but you just got to try to find a way to kind of hone it in and realize that it’s just a game, and you have to go out there and make pitches, and I think after that first guy, I kind of got the jitters out a little bit and it’s time to go to work and get guys out.”
Nationals manager Davey Martinez had said the last week he wanted to get Barrett in a game - and not just to award him for all his hard work. The Nationals needed him. Barrett had warmed up twice this week and didn’t get into a game. All of that changed Saturday night.
“Obviously, I got up in the fourth when (starter Austin) Voth was out there with two outs,” Barrett said. “So getting the initial warmups helped kind of get the blood flow going to be ready for this outing. Then they said, ‘You’ve got the fifth no matter what.’ I was like, ‘OK, this is actually happening so let’s go to work’ “
Braves shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria walked on four pitches. But Barrett rebounded to get Julio Teheran to pop up to first baseman Ryan Zimmerman on a bunt attempt. Acuña struck out on three pitches, the last an 84 mph slider for a called third strike. And the dangerous Ozzie Albies, who had homered earlier in the game, flew out to center fielder Victor Robles on a changeup. A scoreless inning for Barrett was in the books.
“I liked him in that spot, I really did, and man, what a moment,” Martinez said. “He came in, his eyes were watery, and I was trying really hard not to cry in front of him. It was an unbelievable moment. We shared it together, we shared it with the team, and he did great. He got the bugs out, and he did great.”
Barrett threw five balls in a row to begin the outing. But then he got back into a groove.
“I was trying to take deep breaths the whole time, just try to slow the game down in that moment,” Barrett said. “You’re trying to take it all in, but at the same time it’s a 2-1 game and I’m just trying to keep the guys still in the game and put up a zero. It was just a special moment, obviously a moment I’ll never forget, and like I said, I think once I got those initial jitters out, kind of helped try to take some deep breaths and go after it.”
And the strikeout of Acuña was unforgettable. The leadoff hitter for the Braves was 17 the last time Barrett pitched in the big leagues. Barrett dispatched him on three pitches.
“Honestly, I mean, you envision that four years ago, I don’t think I knew who Acuña was at that time,” Barrett said. “No, ... you envision the moment and it’s unlike anything that’s going to actually happen. But it’s just surreal, it really is, I don’t know if it’s still hit me yet honestly.
After the inning was complete, Barrett walked back to the dugout and was greeted by the whole team, including Martinez and pitching coach Paul Menhart. That is when the memories of the last four years of rehab, hope, faith, determination and hard work came rushing back into his mind.
“You just, you dream about the moment, you picture the moment you try to visualize what it’s going to be like and you know whatever moment or whatever happens and it’s unlike anything you envisioned,” Barrett said. “So after the outing was over, I’m just walking off and all the emotions just hit me. Just ‘You did it, man. You did it.’
“And it was just a cool moment to share with my teammates and obviously the amount of support that I’ve had from this organization and all the guys in this clubhouse, just a moment I’ll never forget. That’s when the wave of emotions hit me and it’s just a special feeling.”
What was also incredibly special was that so many people who had a hand in his rehab and believed he would again pitch in the majors got to see his return in person.
“My entire family wasn’t going to miss this moment,” Barrett said. “Both my brothers came in, mom, dad, wife obviously, her brother and their parents as well. Physical therapist who’s here in Atlanta, just a whole crew of people got to make it in. Like I said, it’s just a neat moment I’ll be able to celebrate with them tonight. I’m just blessed man, I really am.”
Four years later, The Bear returned. What a return it was. pic.twitter.com/V8fR1qnAiO-- Nationals on MASN (@masnNationals) September 8, 2019