WASHINGTON, D.C. — Before he was even in uniform, Lucas Giolito’s major-league debut was already unforgettable.
The 6'6", 21-year-old flamethrowing righthander sat at his locker in the Nationals clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon in a pair of maroon athletic shorts and a black MLB Players’ Association T-shirt, resting a bottle of water on the floor between his feet. The proceedings started off mellow—he sipped his water and enjoyed a chat with young starter Joe Ross, who was seated to the right of his locker.
“I was trying to just keep [Giolito] loose before the game. I guess he’s not a music, headphones, lock-in kind of guy,” Ross told SI.com. “I was just trying to bear with him those five hours that he was here before the game … He seemed not-too-nervous.”
Things quickly became more lively. Starting pitcher Max Scherzer came over to Danny Espinosa, seated to the left of Giolito, and quickly shot down the second baseman’s idea of wearing shorts at batting practice on a hot afternoon. “We’ve all got to wear the same thing!” he told him. Giolito glanced over, smirked, and took another swig of water.
Then, reliever Jonathan Papelbon entered the clubhouse, commandeered the speaker, and switched off Boston’s “Peace of Mind” in favor of a pair of country songs, which he would play twice each at near-maximum volume.
All the while, Giolito sat at his locker without music, or a magazine, or newspaper, or streaming video on his tablet. He prepared David Puddy style, sitting, staring, and consumed with his own thoughts. He took in just about everything that happened around him—advice from starting pitchers, writers conversing with other players, loud music and the brand-new Nationals gear draping in his locker.
“I just try to stay as normal as possible,” Giolito said.
After fully soaking in a major-league clubhouse, Giolito got out of his chair and walked by the vibrating speaker, smirking. This was the top prospect in baseball, the man who thousands paid to see on Tuesday, and he was merely an extra in a clubhouse filled with colorful personalities.
When Giolito re-emerged some 20 minutes later, he sat down, removed his cap from the hook next to his locker, stared into it for a few seconds, curved the brim and placed it on his head. He began to study his scouting report.
Giolito, who was once projected as the top pick in the 2012 draft out of high school before an elbow injury, watched as 15 teams passed on him that year. The next summer, he grinded through a year-long rehab from Tommy John surgery. Over the last calendar year, he’s patiently waited for a promotion from Double A after 22 starts—the majority of which were superb. The anticipation was over. It was finally time to become a big leaguer.
Or so he thought.
Giolito sat through a 55-minute rain delay before making his first walk to the hill, walking in and out of manager Dusty Baker’s office several times, eagerly waiting to hear when the game would start.
“I never saw rain in the forecast at all. I thought it would be, like, 72 degrees, sunny, all that stuff. That’s how I dreamt it,” Giolito said. “I was a little anxious to get out there. I went out a little bit earlier than I usually would for a start just because I wanted to get out there after waiting and sitting here.”
The jitters were present early; he allowed a leadoff single to Curtis Granderson and sailed his first few fastballs, but very quickly snapped into character. The righty snuck a two-seam fastball on the inside corner to the next batter, lefthander Asdrubal Cabrera, who raised a hand out to the side as if to say, “Excuse me?” Cabrera later struck out. Then, Giolito pounded a 96 mph heater in on Yoenis Cespedes and delivered a hook to Neil Walker, inducing two straight groundouts.
After the Granderson single, Giolito would not allow another hit in his four innings of work. He retired eight in a row, flashing all four of his pitches. His two-seamer and live four-seamer, both of which sit in the upper-90s but are perceived to be quite a bit faster with his pitch extension, helped him retire four of those hitters, while his 80-grade wipeout curve and deceiving changeup put away the others.
Giolito would have pitched much deeper into the game if not for a steady downpour that delayed it a second time, for an hour and 25 minutes. Over his four frames, he would throw 45 pitches, 29 for strikes, walk two and strike out one. The average exit velocity of the 11 batted balls off the righty was a soft 88.9 mph.
Aside from the rude interruption from Mother Nature, the low strikeout total put somewhat of a damper on what was an otherwise successful evening for Giolito. The young righthander entered the evening faced with questions about his mental fortitude and pitch command (he walked four in 4 ½ his last time out at Double A) and answered both. After the nerves wore off following missing badly with a few pitches, he was steady.
“I thought he threw great. He had a great mentality going out there, and didn’t really let anything affect him at all,” said Bryce Harper. “If he can do that, he’s going to help us. Being able to go out there with the emotion and everything that he had today, I didn’t see it. It was a lot of fun to watch, and I don’t think any kind of big moment or anything like that is really going to come in his way, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.”
After Washington’s prized prospect exited following the long delay, the offense poured it on. With a runner on in the fifth, Harper tattooed a ball into the rightfield bullpen to push the Nationals ahead 3–0, and in the seventh catcher Wilson Ramos brought in another two with a deep double to centerfield. The Nationals held a 5–0 lead, winning by that final, thanks to the relief efforts of former-Met Oliver Perez, Sammy Solis and Shawn Kelley.
As far as debuts for top prospects go, it was rather ho-hum. Giolito will still need to locate pitches on a consistent basis at the next level, and register more whiffs, to achieve his potential. It is irresponsible, of course, to make judgments off a prospect’s debut. If that were the case, Kris Bryant (0 for 5 with three strikeouts in his first game) would currently be pouring coffee for a living. But you can certainly get a sense of how they handle the spotlight. Giolito took the ball against a division rival, in front of an announced attendance of 29, 918, and was effective. It was far from Stephen Strasburg’s debut, but it was one of the more lively nights Nationals Park has hosted this season.
With Strasburg eligible to return from an upper back strain on Friday, it’s unclear if Giolito, who was called up to fill the injured ace’s spot in the rotation, will remain with the team to make another start. The next time he prepares for a start, whenever that is, he might want to bring along some headphones, or a book to read, along with a poncho. Just in case.