The Washington Nationals bolstered their relief corps Monday morning, adding left-handed veteran Zach Duke and right-hander Christian Garcia as their latest September call-ups.
And for both, the promotion was one that carried with it significant emotion.
“I knew the way these guys were throwing up here that, for me to get called up, there’d have to be an injury — or probably two or three injuries,” Duke said. “So I didn’t expect to be called up. It was pretty shocking and very overwhelming a couple days ago. I’m just so thankful for it.”
“Going through everything I’ve been through and still having an opportunity to live my dream, it felt real,” Garcia said. “I never gave up on myself, but I never knew when that day would come. “
For both players, Monday represented the ultimate goal at the end of long, winding paths.
For Duke, it was a return to the major leagues that he wasn’t sure would ever come. Released by the Houston Astros in spring training, the Nationals were the only team that really offered him any type of chance. He spent the year at Triple-A trying to rediscover the form that, at one time, made him a solid major league starter.
In 26 starts this year for Triple-A Syracuse, Duke was 15-5 with a 3.51 ERA. He was named to the International League All-Star team.
“Obviously, you’re always hopeful to get back to the big leagues,” Duke. “But the way that my spring training went, getting released in spring training, the whole thing was really just to get back to where I felt like I was the pitcher I was capable of being, regardless of what the numbers and everything else was. I feel like I was able to accomplish that and this is just the icing on the cake for me. I feel as good on the mound right now as I have in years. It’s a very comforting feeling for a pitcher.”
Duke was reunited with a lot of former Pirates when he joined the Nationals’ organization and saw plenty of familiar faces around the clubhouse Monday in Michael Gonzalez, Adam LaRoche, Sean Burnett and Tom Gorzelanny, along with coaches Trent Jewett and Jim Lett.
But most pivotal for Duke this season was Nationals pitching coordinator Spin Williams, who was his pitching coach in Pittsburgh.
“He had a very good memory of what my delivery looked like back then,” Duke said. “And we got together with Greg Booker, the pitching coach at Triple-A and we really just tried to base what I was doing off of what we saw on the video. It was just a lot of consistent work and working together that got me back to feeling the way I feel I should be.”
They noticed “some directional things,” Duke said that were ridding his delivery of some of its deception and some arm speed. Duke worked to fix those issues. The result was getting back to the major leagues.
“He had a great year,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “I think it’s good when some guys sign with us and play good they get rewarded for it.”
“I’m thankful for the opportunity (the Nationals) gave me,” he said. “When you get released from a team like Houston, who has the worst record in baseball, it doesn’t look really good for you. The Nationals still believed in me, gave me a shot, and it worked out.”
As for Garcia, his path is perhaps more gut-wrenching than most. A former Yankees prospect, Garcia was a high school catcher with a great arm — who actually once played for a wood bat high school league team coached by Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr.
The Yankees, who drafted him in 2004, put him on the mound, where former Yankees farmhand Tyler Clippard remembered seeing him use his impressive stuff and power to baffle hitters. And then Tommy John surgery struck for the first time. And then Tommy John surgery struck for the second time.
“I never thought (about not making it back),” Garcia said Monday. “This is what I do. This is what I love. This is what I’m good at. When they told me I was going to have the second one, I looked at it as just an obstacle. Something I can overcome and make me stronger as a person. It made me a better ballplayer, mentally.”
Garcia found out Sunday night that he’d be joining the Nationals and his first call went to his parents. It was emotional.
“They’ve been with me, supporting me, the whole time,” Garcia said. “When things are going well, everybody’s there, but when things are going bad, my parents are the ones who’ve been there with me through it.”
Garcia shook hands with some of his new teammates Monday morning and acclimated himself with the first big league clubhouse he’s ever had a nameplate in. He’s a major leaguer now — and part of a pennant race. He said most of his success this season, in which he had a 0.56 ERA in 52 1/3 innings across Double-A and Triple-A, was due to the work he put in in the offseason, and to living in the moment.
“I worked out extremely hard this offseason,” Garcia said. “I think it put me in a place to be successful. And having fun. When you’re out of the game, and I was out for a year-and-a-half just sitting, watching, you miss the little things that you normally would complain about. When I got back I tried not to complain, just to be thankful and humble and live every moment, live it up. Because you never know when your last day’s going to be.
“It’s always been fun, but now it’s like I take it as I don’t know when my last pitch is going to be. So I’m going to take every pitch as if it’s going to be my last.”
Garcia will likely be used as a mid-to-late inning reliever when the Nationals’ regular right-handers need a break. He brushed off any question about whether he has the stamina to get through another month of the season.
“I feel great,” he said. “I feel healthy, 100 percent. I’m not tired at all. I think I just got another shot of life getting up here.”