PHOENIX — Stephen Strasburg’s career-worst start, and rough appearances by Sammy Solis and Matt Grace paved the way for this on Tuesday night: Clint Robinson, a first baseman-outfielder on the mound in the eighth inning, firing 81-mph fastballs. It was quite the sight to see.
Sure, the Nationals trailed by 10 runs, but seeing 6-foot-5 left-handed Robinson on the mound added a little levity and history to an otherwise miserable game. “We come back from that inning, everybody was laughing a little bit with him,” catcher Wilson Ramos said of Robinson, who became the first-ever Nationals position player, from 2005 to now, to pitch in a game. (In fact, the last time it happened in franchise history was in 1990 when Dave Martinez and Junior Noboa appeared in a game for the Expos.)
Once Strasburg was knocked out of the game after 3 1/3 innings, the Nationals needed as many quick innings from their relievers as possible. Solis, however, gave up four runs over two innings. Grace could get only two outs and coughed up two more runs. Aaron Barrett fired a scoreless seventh inning but, by then, the Nationals had used four pitches and couldn’t keep going to the bullpen.
So in the seventh, Manager Matt Williams asked Tyler Moore and Robinson, and asked who was willing to pitch. Robinson was quick to volunteer even though he knew it would be a challenge.
“To save the bullpen obviously,” he said. “It’s obviously not a good thing whenever a position player has to pitch because it means you’re losing the game. If they felt it was out of hand and they felt they needed someone to cover an inning to save our bullpen for the rest of the road trip, I’m more than happy to do it.”
“It’s never something you want to do,” Williams added. “But in games like this, we just can’t stretch our bullpen any further.”
So Robinson went down in the batting cage to warm up his arm. He hasn’t pitched since his senior year at Northview High in Dothan, Ala. in 2003. He was a two-way player then who, he said, reached the low-90s with his fastball. But he didn’t pitch often then because, he said laughing, it took him weeks to recover. But for one inning against the Diamondbacks, he was willing to try. He wasn’t nervous.
“Just go out there and throw strikes,” Robinson said. “You can’t expect to go out there and throw it by everybody. I’m not a major league pitcher so just go out there and throw it over the plate and hopefully they hit it right at people.”
Before taking the mound, Robinson conferred with Ramos on mound to go over his pitching repertoire and the signs.
“He just told me fastball-slider,” Ramos said. “That’s it. I called it. He never shake me off.”
And despite a 12 year layoff from pitching, Robinson looked better than expected. After David Peralta hit Robinson’s second pitch, a 79-mph fastball, for a single, he got three quick outs. He struck out Aaron Hill on three pitches, including a slider for a strike, the type of embarrassing result position players dread when facing other position players. Robinson then got Chris Owings to fly out and Tuffy Gosewisch to ground out.
“I honestly didn’t realize that’s who it was until I got on deck,” Owings said. “You just try to go up there and try to put the ball in play.”
“He threw well,” Ramos added.
After Robinson’s strikeout of Hill, starter Max Scherzer signaled from the dugout for Robinson to throw the ball aside for a keepsake. He obliged. When he entered the dugout after his scoreless, nine-pitch outing, Robinson got a lot of laughs and high fives from teammates. He was even pinch hit for with Michael A. Taylor in the ninth.
“To honest with you, it’s not really that big of a deal,” Robinson said. “It’s just one game. I was helping out. It’s cool now to think about it. I was just in the moment or in the zone.”
It has been a long road for Robinson to this point, signing a minor league team in the winter as a 30-year-0ld and making the team out of spring training as a dark horse bench candidate. And now, he can add a new title to his resume.
“It’s something I never thought I would do,” he said. “Just last year I was in L.A. wondering if I would ever get my first big league hit. And now I’ve got my first strikeout. It’s just checking another thing off the baseball bucket list for me.”
After the game, Robinson said a high school baseball teammate was at Chase Field to see him. The first words out of his friend’s mound were: “What is that? You used to throw harder than that. What happened?” Robinson found it amusing. A long layoff to a position player can do that. Robinson will surely feel the effects of his outing Wednesday morning after using parts of his body he hasn’t used in a long time. But unlike most pitchers after the game, Robinson sported no ice pack on his arm.
“I don’t believe in that,” he said with a laugh.
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NATIONALS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 5, Gwinnett 4: Bruce Billings allowed two runs over six innings. Jose Valverde fired a scoreless inning. Evan Meek allowed two runs but earned the save. Steven Lerud went 3 for 3. Kila Ka’aihue went 2 for 4.
Harrisburg 4, Reading 1: Joe Ross allowed one run and struck out five over seven innings. Casey Janssen allowed one hit and got hit in the leg by a comebacker but fired a scoreless inning. He is expected to take two days off but then appear in back to back games. Mario Lisson homered and drove in three.
Potomac 2, Wilmington 0: Reynaldo Lopez fired six dazzling innings, striking out six and allowing only four hits. Derek Self and Nick Lee combined for three scoreless innings. Spencer Kieboom sent 2 for 4.
Greenville 4, Hagerstown 0: Reed Reilly fired six scoreless and Williams Jerez added three scoreless. Hagerstown managed only four hits.