With two outs in the seventh inning last night, Corey Brown stepped back into the major leagues and told himself, “Get a pitch.” Nerves and strikeouts had been his two biggest adversaries throughout his career, and he had a tendency to chase balls out of the strike zone. The Nationals’ lead had been cut to one in the previous inning. As a pinch hitter, on the day he had been called up, he just wanted to get on base, maybe start a two-out rally.
Luis Garcia threw Brown a first-pitch fastball at his shoulder, and he laid off. He took a slider that may have been out of the strike zone for strike one, then spit on another slider. And then he got his pitch. Garcia fired a 95-mph fastball straight down the middle.
Blemishes and injuries have kept Brown, 27, from breaking through, but he is loaded with talent. He took a beautiful swing – short, powerful, high finish – and annihilated the pitch. The crowd gasped. The ball soared into the first row of the upper deck at Citizens Bank Park. In his first major league at-bat of this season, Brown had crushed the second major league home run of his career.
“I would say it was a lot easier today than in my first at-bat a couple years ago,” Brown said. “I think that’s obviously the hardest. First time back, there’s still that excitement and a lot of emotions going on. But like I said, I tried to tell myself to stay relaxed and just get a good pitch to hit.”
Since the Nationals traded for Brown in the winter before the 2011 season, he has been unable to shed his status as a minor-leaguer. He has received a September call-up in three straight seasons, and last year he had a brief stint as a bench player, going 5 for 19 with a double, a homer and nine strikeouts.
This September, Brown has a chance to stake his claim to shaking his label as a solid Class AAA player who hasn’t been able to leap to the big leagues. Roger Bernadina, the left-handed outfielder capable of playing all three spots, has been cut. He may face competition from outsiders next spring — the Nationals are interested in signing David DeJesus if he becomes a free agent — but Brown will have his first realistic chance yet to crack an opening day roster.
“Whatever opportunities I get, I’m going to try to make the most of it,” Brown said. “I know right know, we’re still trying to make a playoff push. He’s going to throw his top nine guys out there. Whenever my name is called upon, whether it’s to hit or play defense, I’m going to try to help them out and make the most of it.”
This season, his opportunity never came, even as Bernadina suffered one of the worst seasons of any player in baseball. Brown aimed to cut down on strikeouts, his most prominent flaw. But coming back from injury, he whiffed 132 times in 438 plate appearances, his highest rate since he joined the Nationals.
In the first week of the season in frigid Syracuse, Brown took a swing during batting and pulled his oblique. He missed an entire month. When the Nationals suffered attrition in the majors, Eury Perez and Jeff Kobernus received call-ups instead.
“So I think that, if any time, would have been my opportunity to get a chance,” Brown said. “When I got healthy, everyone up here was playing well and staying out of the training room and whatnot. So I try not to think about it when I’m down there. Obviously, you hear stuff. You know what’s going on. But when I was down in Syracuse, I just tried to continue to play well and just wait for my opportunity to come up here.”
Brown has it now, and last night he got off to a good start. He was not the only Nationals call-up who received action on his first day. Two batters before Brown, Wilson Ramos walked, and Kobernus replaced him at first as a pinch runner.
Catching his 12th straight game, Ramos blocked several balls in the dirt to his right side, which meant he landed on his surgically repaired knee. He felt a small cramp behind his knee, and trainers and coaches were alarmed when they saw him stretching it out.
“When I came into the dugout, they ask me,” Ramos said. “I say, ‘No, it feels great.’ But I take a walk. After that, he told me, ‘You catch 11, 12 games in a row, so take a rest. Go into the training room, get the treatment and you’ll be ready for tomorrow.’ ”
Ramos had no doubt he would start a 13th consecutive game tonight.
“Nah,” he said. “I’ll be ready.”
FROM THE POST
It was ugly, but the Nationals’ fading hopes to make a postseason run stayed alive with a 9-6 win over the Phillies, James Wagner writes.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Auburn 3, Mahoning Valley 1: Lucas Giolito allowed one run in four innings on three hits and three walks, striking out five. In 11 outings between the Gulf Coast League and Auburn, Giolito, 19, made his comeback from Tommy John surgery with 36 2/3 innings, a 1.96 ERA, 39 strikeouts, 14 walks and 28 hits.
The Doubledays finished 26-48.