WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - It was just a 15-minute bullpen session, and he was just one of four pitchers in the last of six groups to take the mound over the last two mornings at Nationals camp. This is the most routine and mundane of activities, and just about every pitcher who went through the drill treated it as such.
None of those pitchers, though, had to endure what Aaron Barrett did over the last three years just to get back on that mound this morning. It’s quite possible no pitcher in baseball history ever has. Which is why there were some extra emotions welling up inside of Barrett as he took his turn today.
“I wouldn’t say butterflies, but I definitely had more adrenaline than I’ve had in the past,” he said. “Just to be able to get out there and realize it’s my first big-league camp in a while, it was just a lot of fun.”
Nationals fans remember Barrett for his strong rookie season in 2014, when he posted a 2.66 ERA in 50 appearances and wound up on the mound in San Francisco in the seventh inning of Game 4 of the National League Division Series, ultimately allowing the decisive run that sent the Nats home. They remember him for his less-successful 2015 season, when his ERA rose to 4.60 in 40 games before he went on the disabled list with an elbow sprain that required Tommy John surgery.
Little did anyone know what the road back from that injury would entail.
Despite making through the majority of the Tommy John rehab process with no issues, Barrett suffered an even worse calamity near the end of the process. Throwing a pitch in a simulated game at the Nationals’ former spring training complex in Viera in July 2016, his right arm snapped. It was a gruesome injury that nauseated others who witnessed it live and required emergency, six-hour surgery by orthopedist James Andrews, who had to install a plate and screws in his elbow to hold everything in place.
Such a devastating one-two punch of injuries would be more than enough to convince a pitcher to call it a day and retire on the spot. And Barrett admits the thought crossed his mind. But then he decided he couldn’t walk away like that. He needed to make it back. So he went through yet another yearlong rehab, then went to pitch for the Nationals’ short-season Single-A club in Auburn, N.Y.
Pitching alongside teammates fresh out of the draft, Barrett made 20 appearances last summer and enjoyed significant success. He posted a 1.74 ERA. He struck out 26 batters in 20 2/3 innings. His velocity didn’t come all the way back, but his arm held up through the daily wear and tear.
And so even though his contract expired at season’s end, the Nationals offered Barrett a new deal in November: a minor-league deal, but an invitation to return to big league camp and pitch all spring with the veterans instead of the kids around the corner in minor league camp.
“Absolutely, the Nationals could’ve easily written me off,” he said. “But I think just a credit to the front office and the training staff and the type of organization the Nationals are. We’re family, and they treat guys like family. I’ve been blessed to be able to continue to rehab with them. They’ve seen it through. It’s just a tribute to them to stick with me and see it through. And I’m ready to show all the hard work is going to pay off.”
Barrett, now 31, had plenty of onlookers during today’s bullpen session. To the untrained eye, he looked the same as he did way back in 2014, though he points out the astute observer will notice he can’t physically extend his right arm all the way through his release of each pitch. His elbow will never be able to bend beyond a 15-degree angle.
But the results thus far have been positive. His velocity is returning. His arm feels strong. And he’s got a whole lot of supporters watching his every move.
“He comes to the ballpark every day, big smile on his face,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But he’s ready to compete every day. I can’t speak enough about the person that he is and the competitor that he is. I just hope he has a great camp and he continues to build every day and get stronger every day.”
Nobody’s saying what exactly Barrett is competing for this spring. Common sense says he’s not legitimately in the running for a spot in the opening day bullpen. But he’s approaching it as though he is, because that’s the only way he knows how to approach it.
And whether it happens on March 28 or May 28 or Sept. 1, Barrett has one clear-cut goal in mind.
“I would be lying to you if I said I was just happy to be here,” he said. “My mindset has been since Day One to get back to the big leagues and pitch in the big leagues. ...
“It’s going to be an amazing comeback story.”