The last time he had pitched at Nationals Park, Justin Miller was roughed up by the Cubs. It was May 17, 2019, and after serving up a two-run homer to Kris Bryant, Miller wound up on the injured list with a rotator cuff strain. The Nats, after that loss, were 18-26 and about to reach rock bottom.
Things have changed just a bit since then, both for the Nationals and for Miller, who after his injury-plagued 2019 became a bit of a baseball nomad in the year-plus since. While the Nats were rallying to win the World Series, then coming back to earth during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Miller was just trying to make it back to the big leagues.
He pitched for the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla., last spring, went to Arizona to stay sharp during the pandemic shutdown, returned for summer training and was cut on the final day of camp, reported to the Blue Jays’ alternate training site in Rochester, pitched well all summer but never got called up, was traded to the Reds for a while but didn’t pitch in the majors, then went back to Arizona over the winter to figure out how to resurrect his career.
Nobody was offering even an invitation to big league camp this spring, so Miller accepted an offer from the Nationals to return to West Palm Beach, Fla., and be part of minor league camp, with no assurances of anything beyond that.
So as the 34-year-old right-hander found himself standing next to the dugout at Nationals Park on Tuesday afternoon, wearing a curly W cap as a member of the big league roster again, he was understandably proud to have been rewarded for his efforts over the last 25 months.
“It’s nice to get back here, a familiar place, a lot of familiar faces,” he said during an on-field interview with reporters during batting practice. “I had to do a lot of work to get back here, prove to people I could still do it. It was nice to do that.”
Miller did earn his way back. In 13 relief appearances for Rochester (ironically, now the Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate) he allowed one earned run, striking out 29 while walking only four. His shoulder is healthy, the rest of his body feels good and he’s happy to be pitching in the big leagues again after he was called up to take the roster spot Max Scherzer held before going on the 10-day injured list with groin inflammation.
And he made the most of his 2021 debut, recording the final two outs of the Nats’ 8-1 victory over the Pirates with ease.
“Health is a big factor, because my body doesn’t have any hesitation,” he said. “It’s not me, myself restricting me from throwing hard in ‘19. It was my body. I was out there trying to give everything I can; it wasn’t coming out. Being able to have that security blanket in the back of my head to be able to throw it as often as I want as hard as I want, and not feeling pain, that’s been a big factor.”
Who knows how long this stint in D.C. will last for Miller. He hopes it’s as successful as his 51-game stint here in 2018, when he went 7-1 with a 3.61 ERA, 1.127 WHIP and two saves. The following year didn’t go as he hoped, but he feels like he’s much more in tune with his 2018 self right now than his 2019 self.
Whatever the case, Miller isn’t taking this opportunity for granted. He wears three rubber bracelets on his left arm that read “Prove Them Wrong,” “Underdog Mentality” and “Be Your Own G.O.A.T.”
After a more winding road than he expected, he’s back in the majors and hoping to pick up where he left off before he got hurt.
“It was kind of a kick in the gut,” he said of not getting promoted by the Blue Jays last season. “But I didn’t ever lose faith. Once I was throwing for teams, showing what I was throwing, I knew I could still do it, if I had to go to independent ball and prove it. The Nationals luckily gave me a shot, so I got to prove it in their farm system.”