WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - There’s a generally accepted rule in spring training that veteran players need only stay in the dugout watching exhibition games until the mass substitutions start taking place, usually around the fourth inning or so during this first week of play.
Ryan Zimmerman, though, spoke to his Nationals teammates before Saturday night’s Grapefruit League opener and made it clear no one was to leave the dugout until the completion of the fifth inning, until Aaron Barrett had completed his first appearance in a big league game in 3 1/2 years.
“It’s unbelievable the amount of support I have from my teammates,” the reliever said. “Everybody sticking around to watch me pitch, it’s unbelievable. I can’t really explain to you how much that means to me. To be back and to be able to pitch again, words can’t describe it.”
It was just an inning of relief on Feb. 23, an inning that ended with two runs having crossed the plate. But it was so much more than that for Barrett, who after making 90 appearances for the Nationals in 2014-15 spent a year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery only to break his arm throwing a pitch and require another two years of rehab to make it back from that horrific injury.
When he completed his warm-up pitches prior to the top of the fifth, Barrett took some extra time behind the mound to say a prayer and compose himself before getting back to work, thinking about what it took just to put himself back in this position.
“I think I appreciate the moment more now than I did ever,” said the 31-year-old, who has a metal plate and screws in his elbow. “It’s something I try to be really present. When you have something taken away, and now being able to pitch again and realizing what you have, I was just trying to really hone in on everything. It was just a special moment for me. I was just trying to make the most of it.”
Barrett, who regularly threw 95 mph before suffering his injuries, topped out at 91 mph Saturday night. The results weren’t especially memorable; he allowed a leadoff single, then issued a walk, then after recording two outs (including a strikeout of Aledmys Díaz) he allowed a two-run single to center.
But by night’s end, Barrett wasn’t getting worked up about his pitching line. The simple fact this non-roster invitee to big league camp pitched in the game was enough to bring out his true emotions.
“After the outing, obviously, I was upset at first, just because I was one pitch away from putting up that goose egg,” he said. “And I really wanted to not give up any runs. So initially, the competitor in me, I never want to fail. But at the same time, I know I can hold my head up. Because I know I gave everything I had. To be back pitching and competing at this level, I can’t describe. I’m really excited about it.”