- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Someday, perhaps even before this season is over, Mike Hinckley is going to be a major league pitcher. Maybe even a great one.

Today, though, Hinckley is learning the harsh lesson that most 22-year-old phenoms are forced to accept at some point in their development: It takes a lot more than a golden arm and a positive attitude to make it in the big leagues.

Hinckley learned that the hard way yesterday in his first career start against a major league opponent. Pitching for a split-squad Washington Nationals team against the New York Mets’ “A” lineup, the organization’s top prospect was tagged for six runs (five earned) and eight hits in just two innings. The Mets never let up, cruising to a 14-5 exhibition victory.

Not the kind of outing that’s likely to convince club officials he’s ready to make the jump from Class AA to the big leagues.

But perhaps one that, years from now, Hinckley can look back at as a turning point in his path to the majors. Which may explain why this personable left-hander from Oklahoma City was in such good spirits following such a rough performance.

“I can’t get down on myself,” he said. “And I’m not down right now. I’m just ready for tomorrow, so I can come back and learn more.”

Hinckley’s chances of making the Nationals’ Opening Day rotation were slim to begin with when spring training camp opened three weeks ago. Though interim general manager Jim Bowden and manager Frank Robinson have made it clear they would consider putting Hinckley on the roster, they know it would take a superhuman effort this spring to make it happen.

“I’m not opposed to giving someone a chance, no matter how inexperienced they are,” Robinson said. “I hope he makes [the decision] tough on us.”

Barring a dramatic turnaround over the next few weeks, Robinson’s decision isn’t likely to be a tough one. For all his physical gifts and strong mental makeup, Hinckley simply needs some more seasoning before he’s ready.

Not that he hasn’t tried his darndest to dazzle the Nationals’ brass.

“To tell you the truth, I think he’s trying to do too much,” said pitching coach Randy St. Claire, who watched yesterday’s game while the rest of the staff stayed in Viera for Washington’s other game against the Houston Astros. “He’s trying to impress too much and not just doing what he can do.

“He comes into camp thinking he’s got a chance, and he’s just trying to sell it too hard. He needs to relax and let it happen for him. He’s got a good arm; he just needs to use it.”

It doesn’t take long to realize Hinckley has some natural gifts. His lanky 6-foot-3, 170-pound frame makes him look like a prototypical left-handed pitcher. He’s got command of a fastball that tops out in the low 90s and an assortment of off-speed stuff to balance out his repertoire.

But it also didn’t take long yesterday to realize Hinckley was fazed by the sight of a Mets lineup that included Carlos Beltran, Mike Piazza and Doug Mientkiewicz. All three veterans contributed to New York’s five-run first inning — Beltran ripped a double down the left-field line, Piazza drove in the game’s first run with a long sacrifice fly and Mientkiewicz drove in two more with a double off the wall in right-center.

Hinckley needed a whopping 34 pitches before escaping that fateful first inning and another 22 to get out of the second having allowed another run. He pitched behind in the count to almost every batter he faced.

“I don’t think there were nerves,” he said. “If I just get the ball down, locate and get ahead of the hitters instead of getting behind, I don’t give them a chance to hit balls off the wall. When I got ahead of those hitters, I was able to get to where I wanted to and get outs.”

Whether their prized prospect cracks the roster this year or not, the Nationals continue to have the highest of hopes for Hinckley. The organization’s third-round pick in the 2001 draft, Hinckley has shown immense success at every stage of the minor league system he has reached.

He went 6-2 with a 1.37 ERA in his first full professional season, then went 4-0 with an 0.72 ERA after getting promoted to Class A Brevard County late in the 2003 season. He remained there for the start of the 2004 season but quickly earned another promotion to Class AA Harrisburg and finished the year a combined 11-4 with a 2.77 ERA, earning the organization’s pitcher of the year honor.

Those stellar numbers prompted the Nationals to put Hinckley on their 40-man roster this winter and invite him to camp this spring.

The way things are going, it seems only a matter of time before he’s back pitching in the minor league camp. (In two appearances this spring, he’s posted an unsightly 15.75 ERA.)

Hinckley, though, still is trying to make the most of this experience. He may not be on a major league roster come Opening Day, but the more time he spends watching and talking to major league pitchers this spring, the sooner he might find himself standing on the mound at RFK Stadium, fulfilling his promise.

“It’s been amazing,” Hinckley said of his spring training experience. “I’m just excited day to day that I’m going to be able to learn something, come out here and do something that not many people get to do.

“I know I belong here.”

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