Even down the stretch of the stretch, some things transcend ratings and standings. Aaron Barrett became one of them Saturday night.
When the Nationals righthander was sent out to pitch the bottom of the fifth, it may have been enough that he could be up for the assignment at all, never mind working a scoreless inning in a game that eventually became a ninth-straight Braves win.
And it wasn’t low leverage, either, despite the end of the Braves’s batting order looming. This wasn’t a mop-up assignment on either end of a ferocious blowout or to hold fort in a lost cause. Barrett relieved Nats starter Austin Voth with the Nats down a mere 2-1 and Ronald Acuna, Jr. looming as the third man scheduled to hit.
Maybe Barrett’s kind of comeback was the kind that moves a manager to trust his heart equal to trusting his stuff. It isn’t every major league pitcher who survives Tommy John surgery and a followup broken humerus bone to throw even one pitch, never mind a scoreless inning.
Barrett didn’t exactly start the gig the right way, walking Adeiny Hechevarria on four straight to open the inning. But he made sure Hechevarria was the only Braves runner of the frame. He got Braves starting pitcher Julio Teheran to foul out to first on 1-2. And then came Acuna, who was perfectly capable of spreading the Braves’ lead and the Nats’ concurrent miseries with a single swing.
The husky righthander with the doll-like face under his beard went right back to work. He caught Acuna looking at a strike one two-seam fastball on the upper inside corner. He got Acuna to swing right over a second two-seam fastball that hit the floor of the strike zone. He caught Acuna looking at a sweetly diving slider that landed smack dab on the low outside corner.
It was Barrett’s first major league punchout in 1,499 days, but the way he did it would leave a neurosurgeon envious of that kind of precision.
And when he got Ozzie Albies—who homered in the first—to loft a changeup to moderately short center field for the side, Barrett wiped tears from his eyes with the front of his Nats jersey as he stepped down from the mound toward the dugout. Where manager Dave Martinez and his grinning teammates high-fived and embraced him. Then Barrett took a seat, clutching the towel Martinez handed him, and wept unashamedly into that towel.
A three-run Atlanta sixth, including back-to-back homers by Brian McCann and Matt Joyce, still lurked ahead. So did a Nationals run scoring on a seventh-inning double play, and so did Juan Soto sending a two-run double to the back of center field in the eighth.
So, unfortunately, did the Nats falling ten games behind the Braves in the National League East with the 5-4 loss, while keeping a two-game grip on the league’s first wild card, while the Braves added to a 20-4 string since 11 August and a thirteenth straight home win, the Show’s most since the Indians did it in their pennant-winning 2016.
None of which really overthrew Barrett’s first major league inning in four years. “After the outing was over,” he managed to say after the game, “I’m just walking off and all the emotions just hit me. Just, ‘You did it, man. You did it’.”
He’d been one solid element of the 2014 Nats bullpen with a 2.66 ERA, a 2.59 fielding-independent pitching rate (FIP), a 10.8 strikeouts-per-nine rate, and 49 punchouts in 40 2/3 innings. But he had a rough seventh-inning appearance in Game Four of that year’s division series sweep at the Giants’ hands, walking the bases loaded, then wild-pitching tying run Joe Panik home with Pablo Sandoval at the plate.
He pitched in terrible luck in 2015: a 2.21 FIP against a 4.60 ERA in forty appearances before going down to Tommy John surgery. Then, in his first return, his humerus bone snapped hard enough that those who were there could hear it resemble a gunshot, according to MLB.com’s Nats beat writer Jamal Collier. Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post described it as “look[ing] like his elbow had ‘exploded’.”
Barrett subsequently began the long trek back up from the lowest minor leagues until his 2.75 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 52 1/3 innings at Harrisburg (AA) this year earned him the callup to the Nats. His wife, parents, in-laws, brothers, and physical therapist were at SunTrust Park Saturday. (Barrett lives just outside Atlanta itself.)
They plus thousands of Nats fans hope this is a comeback that sticks, that Barrett even at 31 continues his pitching career at all, never mind in the Show. They surely know others haven’t been that fortunate. Including one whose pitching arm humerus bone betrayed him likewise in 1988.
Dave Dravecky survived cancer in that bone to make a gutsy return to the Giants the following season, beating the Reds with an eight-inning performance. His very next start, against the Expos: the humerus broke while he delivered a pitch to Hall of Famer Tim Raines, sending Dravecky down in a tumbling heap. Season over.
During the subsequent on-field celebration when the Giants beat the Cubs in the 1989 National League Championship Series: arm broken again. X-rays showed the cancer came back as profoundly as Dravecky himself. Career over. Two years later: arm and shoulder amputated. He found a second career as a Christian motivational speaker and writer, often collaborating with his wife, Jan.
Things like that remind you to live in the moment and make it count for as long as you have the moment. Aaron Barrett plans to do just that. Even if he might have a Comeback Player of the Year award in his 2020 to come. With his spirit, don’t rule it out. “You dream about the moment,” Barrett told Collier. “You picture the moment, you try to visualize what it’s going to be like, and you know whatever moment or whatever happens, it’s unlike anything you envisioned.”
He may or may not have envisioned catching Ronald Acuna, Jr. with his pants down for strike three. But doing it only sweetened the rare soils from which Barrett hopes to continue emerging to stay.