Matt Purke first came to Nationals Park for the first time shortly before the all-star break, after the Nationals drafted him out Texas Christian University. Purke met the Nationals’ owners and General Manager Mike Rizzo. He surveyed the stadium and the fans. He thought, “I know this feeling.”
“When I did my college recruiting, I took a lot of visits and went to a lot of places,” Purke said today. “When I got to TCU, I kind of felt a sense of, ‘This is home. This is where I can call home. I can fit in with these people and be a part of this group.’ Throughout the days that I was here before the all-star break, I got the same similar feeling.”
Purke came to Nationals Park again today, this time to be introduced to the media three days after signing a four-year major league contract that will pay him about $4 million over four years. He buttoned up a crisp, white No. 47 Nationals jersey, the same number he wore in college to mimic Tom Glavine, his idol.
The size of his contract, of course, motivated Purke to sign. But he could have risked that deal, gone back to school and perhaps been taken with the first overall pick in 2012. He chose the Nationals because he felt comfortable with them, their management and their future.
“I’ve seen the things they’ve done the past few years, with the prospects they’ve brought in,” Purke said. “This organization is going to be very strong. They’re building. They’re going to be a serious team to deal with for years to come. I knew I wanted to be a piece of that for years to come, and hopefully a helpful piece of the puzzle.”
The Nationals signed Purke only after, during his initial trip to Washington, he agreed to undergo an athrogram, a procedure that allows a doctor to inspect the inside of a patient’s elbow or shoulder by injecting dye into the joint. Purke made only 11 starts this year, his sophomore season, as he pitched with a shoulder injury. Purke was confident it was bursitis, an injury that would not leave any lingering structural problems. When the Nationals wanted to know for themselves, he agreed.
“I just knew that the only thing I could do is lay it out there and say, ‘Do what you want to do – the tests, look at it, get your own assessment of it,’ ” Purke said. “And then we can talk. I knew that I was healthy. I knew that I was fit again. I had to prove it. So I said, ‘Do what you have to do, and then we’ll talk from there.’ I had no problem or no objection. They’re looking to protect their investment. I understand that. I understand that it’s business, not personal.”
The openness, according to Purke’s agent, Peter Vescovo of SSG Baseball, helped the Nationals broker the deal with Purke.
“There was more dialogue between the two parties,” Vescovo said. “We were just more open and up front. That’s the way Matthew and his family wanted to be. We’re going to be straightforward, honest. Some people say, ‘Why would you shoot the dye? Why would you do this?’ But that’s the way East Texas People are. They’re going to put everything out there and show you what they’re about. I think Mike and I kind of agreed that we were going to move forward with it.”
Purke will watch tonight’s game and, in a day or two, he will report to Viera, Fla. so the Nationals can assess his readiness to pitch. Purke has been building stamina in his arm after missing most of this college season. He said he could throw two or three innings in a game, and Rizzo said the Nationals would probably send him to a minor league affiliate shortly.
Once he starts pitching in games, the Nationals will watch a pitcher they believe will be in their major league rotation soon. Purke throws a fastball, a curveball and a changeup and models his style after Clayton Kershaw and Cole Hamels, two lefties whom he has met in person.
Based on his talent, Purke was expected to be a top five pick before his injury this season. (In 2009, the Texas Rangers drafted Purke out of high school with the 14th overall pick, but did not sign him because MLB did not allow them to offer a contract over slot as they resolved a bankruptcy case.)
Since he signed a major league contract, Purke will report to big league camp in spring training next. Rizzo did not rule out Purke competing for a spot in the Nationals rotation, nor did he say he would happen.
“That’s a long way away,” Rizzo said. “Let’s get him out of dress shoes first.”
A few feet away, Pukre stood in the Nationals dugout. He father, Lawrence, snapped pictures as he conducted a television interview. A few Nationals players had said hello; Jayson Werth shook his hand and wished him luck. Ryan Zimmerman welcomed him, even though he had not slipped the jersey over his shoulders, as he had for Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. (“I’m retired,” Zimmerman said.)
Purke was back in Nationals Park, where he had felt so comfortable. He had been drafted once before without landing with a major league team, and now he didn’t have to worry about that again. “A big relief,” Purke said.