- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The waiting is the supposed hardest part. Lucas Giolito had to do a lot of it Tuesday.

He was at the park in shorts and a T-shirt by 3:30 p.m. for his major-league debut. The start of the game was delayed 55 minutes by an expected spat of rain. Giolito made multiple trips into manager Dusty Baker’s office to ask when the game was going to begin. It wasn’t until 7:35 p.m. that he started playing long toss on the outfield grass.

Giolito wiped the sweat off his forehead and moved toward the dugout from the bullpen at 7:53. Eric Fanning, the Secretary of the Army, handed Giolito the game ball on the mound a few minutes later. A handshake followed. Then, finally, at 8 p.m., his first fastball was delivered outside of the strike zone at 95 mph.

The Washington Nationals’ top prospect — also ranked as the top prospect in baseball by many — took the major league mound for the first time on Tuesday night, when the schedule threw him right into the heat of the burgeoning National League East pennant race. Giolito started the Nationals‘ 5-0 win against the rival New York Mets, giving up one hit, walking two and striking out one in four innings. He threw 45 pitches, 29 for strikes. Before the second rain delay marooned him in the dugout, the Nationals considered sending him back to the mound, but once the 1:25 delay reach the 45-minute mark, they decided Giolito’s first night was over.

“I thought it was going to be 72 degrees, sunny, that’s how I dreamt it,” Giolito said of debuting in the big leagues. “But, I’ll take what I can get. An MLB debut is an MLB debut and I’m glad I pitched well.”

Giolito’s start did not bring the fervor of teammate Stephen Strasburg’s opening night, though the rumbling anticipation of Strasburg’s arrival would be hard for any pitcher to top. The stands were about a quarter empty by the time Giolito walked off the mound after throwing 12 pitches in the top of the first inning. The mediocre weather, a Tuesday night game and the suddenness of his call-up could have influenced the less-than-full stands. Nationals fans were also searching for saviors when Strasburg was summoned.

Still, those that were in attendance roared when Giolito walked in from the bullpen, then again when his face was shown on the center field video board. The response was louder when the top of the first was over. Giolito was only three pitches into his first outing when Mets leadoff man Curtis Granderson blooped a hit to left field. The 21-year-old worked from the stretch for the rest of the inning, recording his first career major-league strikeout on a 96-mph fastball. Veteran Asdrubal Cabrera will forever be the trivia answer.

A hard grounder to third by Yoenis Cespedes turned into a fielder’s choice. A backhand play at second by Daniel Murphy ended the inning. Giolito returned to the dugout 10 minutes after he left it, finally able to sit down with the beginning done.

“When I was stretching in the outfield and starting to play catch, it was like, ‘Wow,’” Giolito said. “This is a big-league game, I’m pitching, I’m starting against the Mets and that’s kind of where it hit me. It was all business from there.

“I guess the first pitch of the game was a little weird, but after that it felt like any other game I’ve ever played.”

The second inning was a nine-pitch breeze. Giolito was efficient at the start, throwing 73.9 percent of his pitches for strikes in the first two innings. Everyone wondered beforehand if nerves would push Giolito’s pitches out of the strike zone or into bad locations. He was on-point early, using his curveball and changeup to counter a fastball-hunting Mets team that came into the night fifth in the National League in home runs, though it had led the NL in that category for much of the season.

His first at-bat came with two runners on base and two out. He grounded out.

Giolito progressed easily through the third and fourth innings. He learned from the first time he faced Cespedes, the lone slugger in what has become a watered-down Mets lineup, who had hit a ground ball that left his bat at 112 mph. Cespedes walked on four pitches in his second at-bat. Giolito worked a fly out and double play from the next two batters to finish his four innings.

The rain came again after the fourth. Lightning in left field and massive black clouds overhead forewarned of another storm. The tarp was rolled back onto the field. Giolito’s night was over.

His call-up was a late-weekend surprise. Giolito was supposed to join Triple-A Syracuse, earning a promotion from Double-A Harrisburg, where he had been working since spring training. The Nationals told him to hold off after Strasburg went on the disabled list Sunday. 

“I didn’t really know what that meant at the time,” Giolito said.

Assistant general manager and vice president of player personnel, Doug Harris, called Giolito to tell him he was coming to Nationals Park.

“I’ll remember that call for the rest of my life,” Giolito said.

His parents made it to the game. As did his brother, a friend from home and his girlfriend.

“I don’t know if my dad was even able to watch,” Giolito said. “He might have been hiding somewhere really nervous. I think he probably kept it under control. It means the world [to have them there].”

The universal opinion about Giolito’s pitches is that they should be effective in the big leagues. Unified opinion after his first start is that Giolito is a composed 21 year old unaffected by everything involved in his first night.

“The thing that impressed me most was that I saw him so relaxed,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “At no moment did I sense that he was feeling pressure in any way. He was locating his pitches very well and attacking the zone. And then I was very surprised to see how relaxed his composure was out on the mound.”

The question now for the Nationals is when they could see that again. Strasburg threw a bullpen session Tuesday and can come off the disabled list as soon as Friday. General manager Mike Rizzo said Monday that the club will take it a start at a time with Giolito. If the debut was any indication, there’s reason to keep him around. The tough part will be figuring out how, which means Giolito will likely have to keep on waiting.

 

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