One month has passed, one month since that Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park when Jeremy Guthrie turned into the loneliest man in the world, stuck on the mound with no place to hide, the Phillies battering him all over the park, the Nationals watching helplessly as a 38-year-old pitcher’s career came to an agonizing end.
Twelve batters faced. Six hits allowed. Four walks issued. Two outs recorded. Ten runs crossing the plate. Forty-seven pitches thrown. An uplifting story about a longtime veteran making it back to the big leagues for one last shot turning disastrous in the span of about 20 minutes.
One month has passed, and the Nationals have moved on. They’ve turned into one of the best teams in the league. For Guthrie, it’s a different story.
“That start has not been something easy for me to let go,” he said earlier this week from his home in Portland, Ore. “I wanted to end on a good note. I wanted to go out on my terms. Pitch well, prove to yourself and to anyone watching that you still have the ability to get major league hitters out.”
Guthrie had put himself in position to do just that, thanks to a surprisingly strong performance in spring training. After not pitching in the majors in 2016, after heading to Australia over the winter to try to resurrect his career, after a chance encounter with Nationals scout Terry Wetzel in Kansas City while attending a memorial service for former Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura, Guthrie was offered an invitation to West Palm Beach, Fla.
An afterthought when camp opened, Guthrie wound up opening plenty of eyes. He posted a 2.41 ERA over 18 2/3 innings (second-most among any Nationals pitcher this spring). His fastball velocity was up, his command was strong. And though there wasn’t a spot for him on the opening day roster, there was a promise from general manager Mike Rizzo: The team would call him up to start the season’s fifth game, on the road against the Phillies.
Guthrie took the mound that night at Citizens Bank Park - on his birthday, no less - having achieved his goal of returning to the majors when few thought it possible. And then ...
“For six weeks - I told my wife this - I felt unhittable,” he said. “I’d go out there in those spring games, and I just felt like I could throw the ball where I wanted to, get it to move and get people out. And then in 47 pitches in Philadelphia, I felt like I couldn’t get anybody out. And after that, I was realistic with myself enough to know that was the type of outing that could completely change what had transpired the prior six weeks.”
Just like that, the dream was quashed. Guthrie knew he was heading back to Triple-A no matter the outcome that night, but he had assurances from the Nationals he’d be called back up later in the month when they needed a fill-in starter again.
Inside a quiet clubhouse in Philly that night, though, Rizzo informed Guthrie he couldn’t make that promise anymore. The club was still offering Guthrie the opportunity to return to Syracuse and continue pitching in the minors, but he would have to leapfrog several others on the depth chart to get another chance in the majors.
“I had a conversation with Mike Rizzo during the game, in the clubhouse, where he was positive and kind,” Guthrie said. “But he didn’t sugarcoat the devastating blow that game meant to my future.”
Because he needed to wait three days to clear waivers before anything else could transpire, Guthrie decided to fly home to Portland and spend the time with his family. Did he want to go back to Triple-A and try to do it all over again, prove once again he could still pitch well enough to warrant a promotion? Or was he willing to accept the toughest reality every professional athlete must accept at some point at the end of a career?
When the time came, he made the call. He wouldn’t report to Syracuse. He would ask the Nationals for his release. He wouldn’t seek another opportunity to pitch professionally.
“My wife leans on this, and I think I’ve learned to lean on it as well: Maybe the only way I could end up at home anytime soon with my family, where they need me, was for something like this to happen,” Guthrie said. “That was maybe the hardest question I had to ask myself: ‘Why would I pitch well enough to make the team, just to have this happen?’ In my mind, I felt like there was a greater plan, pushing me and providing the opportunities that came to me. And then to have it suddenly go away and be taken away in that fashion, my wife said: ‘You know what, maybe if you just did OK in spring training and didn’t make the team, you would’ve wanted to keep pitching. Maybe if you pitched well in that game, you certainly would’ve kept pitching. But maybe you’re supposed to be home, and that’s probably what’s happening.’”
So it was that Guthrie earlier this week found himself throwing 95 pitches not to a major league team or to a minor league team, but to his local high school team, helping those kids prepare for their next game by facing a live arm.
He won’t go so far as to use the word “retired” because ... well, he just hasn’t been able to get over that hump quite yet.
He has been following the Nationals every day, nervously checking his phone for game updates and hoping they can keep up their strong start to the season. He appreciates the opportunity the organization gave him and continues to thank them for it, no matter how it turned out.
“These are first-class people that I was very impressed with,” he said. “The organization as a whole was just way beyond what I could have ever imagined. Players, staff, training staff, everybody. I would tell every player, if they have the chance, to come play for them. The Nationals are a team I will follow for as long as those players are there.”
Guthrie will, for better or worse, forever be linked to the 2017 Nationals. He pitched in 306 big league games for five different franchises, won 91 games, won an American League pennant and started Game 7 of the World Series for the Royals.
That the final line on his baseball card will always include a 135.00 ERA and one start that lasted two-thirds of an inning will gnaw at him, but it won’t overshadow an entire career. Or make him forget that, no matter how it ended, he did make it back to the majors for one last start.
“I’ll regret the outcome. I won’t regret the process,” he said. “There was nothing more that I could’ve done to prepare. But I’ll regret the outcome as long as I watch baseball. I’ll always think to myself: ‘Geez, if I just could’ve pitched better, who knows what could’ve happened?’ I don’t think I’ll ever get past it, but I think I will accept it for what it is and be grateful for the opportunity I was afforded.
“I spent a whole year not pitching in the major leagues. So to have an organization view me as major league-caliber pitcher again, it was very gratifying.”