By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Inning over, lead preserved, Mike Hinckley sprinted off the mound, hat in hand, and disappeared into a blur. Teammates' hands rubbed his head and patted his back. Odalis Pérez shook Hinckley's hand and said, "Great job, you saved my game." For Hinckley, none of this registered: The adrenaline high blocked all the details, and in the end, the two outs he contributed to Washington's intense 1-0 victory over the New York Mets were measured not so much by words, but by speechlessness.
"I don't have a whole lot to say," Hinckley said between pauses, "because, I mean, it's kind of overwhelming."
Last night, when Hinckley stifled New York's most critical rally at Nationals Park, stood only as the latest unlikely high. Called up this month from Class AAA Columbus, Hinckley has become Washington's preservation specialist, a left-handed reliever who has yet to allow a run in 10 games and nine innings. A top prospect five years ago, an afterthought for much of this season but a revelation this September, Hinckley has used his first weeks in the big leagues to secure a reputation. Yesterday, when Manager Manny Acta called on him in the eighth, Hinckley merely was asked to secure something equally critical.
His performance -- he entered with two men on, luring José Reyes into a forceout and fooling Ryan Church on a swinging strikeout -- neither started the drama nor ended it. But Hinckley's appearance in the eighth upheld everything else. He preserved Pérez's best outing of the year, a 7 1/3 -inning effort in which no Met advanced beyond first until the sixth inning. He also enabled closer Joel Hanrahan's best save of the year, a 1-2-3 ninth in which the right-hander retired batters sporting a collective 90 home runs and 321 RBI.
As New York's Carlos Delgado struck out to end the game, the importance of all the little plays crystallized. Without Willie Harris's sprinting catch in the sixth, New York would have taken a lead. Without Pérez's and Cristian Guzmán's doubles in the fifth, Washington never would have scored the game's lone run.
And after the game, Hinckley realized as much. He's just a piece. But that alone he found elating. He fell behind Reyes, his first hitter, 2-0, then battled back and got him to bounce back to the mound. Then he faced Church with the tying run on third. Following the advice of pitching coach Randy St. Claire, Hinckley threw nothing but breaking balls -- slow and looping. The fourth pitch was in the dirt, but Church waved at it and missed. Hinckley bounded off the mound.
"He's got the hot hand," Acta later said.
"Oh this kid -- unbelievable," said Pérez, who rebounded from last week's three-inning, seven-run start. "He's got great stuff. And I don't think anybody knows him."
Granted, the Nationals' role in this playoff race comes indirectly; they are spoilers, and the heat of tight, meaningful baseball will leave Nationals Park right along with the Mets. But for now, perhaps no pennant race this season has seen an unlikelier influence than Hinckley. Only last year, Washington removed him from its 40-man roster. Hinckley had several seasons of swollen minor league ERAs and none of the velocity that once made him a top prospect.
Part of his diminishment came from a shoulder injury. Once he could touch 95 mph; last year, he maybe threw one pitch that topped 90. He went into the offseason fearful that no team would want him. The Nationals brought him back for 2008 as a non-roster invitee, but mostly as a courtesy. Only in mid-August did Hinckley -- with a redesigned windup and a finally healthy arm -- show flashes of his old self. Washington General Manager Jim Bowden sent several scouts to Columbus and asked their opinion. Hinckley, they all said, was back.
And as a result, the ascension to the big leagues feels like a honeymoon. The clubhouse, the fields, the talent: Hinckley can rhapsodize about the entire experience.
"My mind is still blown away," he said. "Everything is so unknown. I don't want to be taken away from any moment. I can walk out here like a little kid, and look around be like, 'Wow, this is the big leagues.' But at the same time, when I cross that line, I am a competitor. A lot of people think I'm just a nice guy, and they say nice guys are sometimes not aggressive enough. But I don't see myself as a nice guy once I hit the mound. I am going to go out there and put up a zero."