By the time Aaron Barrett walked into the Nationals clubhouse Wednesday morning, his story had already gone viral. While he was calling family members and friends the previous afternoon with the news and making travel arrangements for them to get to D.C. in the next 24 hours, the video clip posted by the Harrisburg Senators of manager Matt LeCroy telling Barrett he was being called up to the big leagues was being shared and liked and viewed 1.2 million times.
Nationals fans already knew Barrett’s story, from a promising rookie season in 2014 to Tommy John surgery in 2015 to a gruesome broken arm suffered during the final stages of his rehab in 2016 to a long, slow road back to competitive baseball the last two seasons. But now the entire sports world was learning about the 31-year-old reliever who was heading back to the majors at last.
“It was super emotional, obviously,” Barrett said. “You know, all the time and work and being patient, and like I said, it’s been a pretty crazy four years. And just know what I’ve put in to get back, and all the people that have supported me throughout the years through this road, just to kind of realizing that it’s actually ... it’s happening. It’s happening, and it just hits you all at once.”
Barrett had long insisted this day would come. After he broke his right humerus bone in July 2016 throwing a pitch in a simulated game in Viera, Fla., and required emergency surgery by famed orthopedist James Andrews to set his arm and elbow back into place with a metal plate and 16 screws, there were days when he didn’t know if he could continue. But then he’d think about the ultimate goal of pitching in the big leagues again, and that drove him through all those long days of rehab and minor league outings.
The Nationals monitored Barrett’s progress all season at Double-A Harrisburg and gradually increased his workload. He wound up pitching in 50 games, posting a 2.75 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, notching 31 saves (which when combined with the 26 saves he recorded way back in 2013 made him the Senators’ all-time record holder).
And so when the calendar turned to September on Sunday and major league teams were allowed to expand rosters, Barrett began anticipating the call. Except it didn’t immediately come. So he began preparing to pitch in the Eastern League playoffs instead of the National League pennant race.
“When it didn’t happen, I was like: ‘All right, maybe after playoffs,’” he said. “Help those guys win a championship, and maybe it’ll happen.”
Barrett never made it to the Eastern League playoffs. At the end of the Senators’ workout Tuesday, LeCroy gathered the entire team together and then broke down in tears when he said it was his honor not only to have managed Barrett all season but to now inform him he had been called up by the Nationals.
Given the time and energy they devoted to him throughout this long process, it figured the Nats would reward Barrett with a September call-up. But as more than one person noted Wednesday, this was no token end-of-season promotion.
“He’s here because he pitched to be here,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He pitched really well. And man, what an unbelievable person, unbelievable guy, competitor. I’m very proud of what he’s gone through, and what an amazing turnaround for him. But he earned the right to be here because of what he’s done on the mound.”
That made Tuesday’s news all the more meaningful to Barrett.
“You don’t want to get called up just to complete a comeback story,” he said. “You want to earn it, and I felt like I pitched really well this year.”
Barrett nearly broke down as he thanked a host of people who helped him complete this journey, culminating with his wife. Kendyl Barrett was among the family members who were at Nationals Park on Wednesday, and surely their hearts began to flutter a bit when they saw a familiar right-hander begin warming up in the bullpen during the bottom of the sixth.
Alas, Barrett never did enter the game. When the Nationals put together a mini rally to trim their deficit to the Mets from 7-1 to 7-4, Barrett took a seat and Wander Suero took over.
So the official return will have to wait a little while. Perhaps Barrett will get to do it this weekend in Atlanta, where he makes his offseason home. Maybe it won’t happen until next week in Minnesota. Or maybe it won’t be until the Nationals return back home after that, where the largest ovation would greet him.
Whenever it happens, Barrett just wants the Nationals to know he’s ready to contribute in any way possible. He didn’t spend four years rehabbing just to pitch in a big league game again. He did it to help his team navigate its way through a pennant race.
“I only pitched two innings at the most (in the minors), but if they need me to go five, I’ll go five,” he said. “I have a bionic arm now, so we’re good. Honestly, I’m here to help this team win in any way possible. Doesn’t matter. I know we’ve got plenty of amazing guys here. So whatever role that is, it really doesn’t matter. I’ll be ready.”