Austin Adams heard all the words of encouragement from teammates after the nightmare in Cincinnati. Don’t worry about it, they told him. Put it behind you. It was just one game. Nobody will remember. But it wasn’t that simple. Adams couldn’t just discard the debacle of a major league debut he experienced at Great American Ballpark on July 15. He was the guy who, with a 10-0 lead, faced five Reds and retired none of them. He was the guy who ignited a near epic bullpen collapse. He was the guy who walked off the mound with an infinity ERA.
“It’s so easy to say,” Adams said, “but that stuck with me for a long time, man.”
Adams’s debut went like this: batter reaches on an E6, walk, wild pitch, hit by pitch to load the bases, walk to score a run, and single to score another. End. He threw 21 pitches. Six were strikes. It was ugly and social media ran with it. It took nearly two months, until he got a second chance in Milwaukee after another stint in the minors, to move on.
“I still gave up two runs there,” Adams said. “It was pretty much a disaster as well. At least I got three outs there.”
Adams laughed. It was easy to in hindsight, sitting at a corner locker in the visitors’ clubhouse in Philadelphia Wednesday afternoon. The 26-year-old right-hander was back in the big leagues with an ERA that didn’t stretch to infinity anymore. The night before, he had thrown a scoreless inning against the Phillies in very Austin Adams fashion — he struck out three, walked one and allowed a hit in his fourth appearance since returning to the Nationals as a September call-up. He hasn’t yielded a run in his last three, dropping his ERA to 4.50. Not outstanding, but not an embarrassing trivia answer either.
“I’m not saying I’m lighting the world on fire,” Adams said. “But, at least for me, it’s let me know that I can compete at this level.”
The thoughtful Adams was one of two players acquired from the Angels in exchange for shortstop Danny Espinosa last December. He boasts explosive, top-shelf, major-league-caliber stuff. His fastball in the mid-90s features wicked movement. Fellow reliever Matt Grace, a teammate with Washington and Class AAA Syracuse this season, described his slider as “filthy.” The stuff has never been the problem. It’s always been the command. It’s what prevented him from making his debut before this season.
“When he throws strikes, he’s nasty,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said.
In 28 outings with Syracuse before his debut this season, Adams had a 2.50 ERA across 36 innings. He had 53 strikeouts and opponents put up a .588 OPS. But he also compiled 28 walks and hit two other batters. Add jitters and the experience in Cincinnati was a perfect storm of that volatility.
“To say I was nervous would be an understatement,” Adams said. “It was so much emotion going. There was just so much going on in my head at the time. Obviously, I knew I was talented enough to be there. There was just a lot going on.”
Adams was optioned to Syracuse three days after the outing, and subjected himself to the misery of watching clips of his debut every night for a week straight.
“I don’t think you understand,” Adams insisted. “That was really big and difficult for me to deal with.”
He focused on the worst of the debacle in search for a glitch he could fix, dwelling on each misfire — on the wild pitch after the first walk, and on the pitch that plunked Adam Duval, and on the second walk. He said he discovered a flaw in his mechanics and fixed it. And, with help from Syracuse Manager Billy Gardner and pitching coach Bob Milacki, he formulated a plan to create more consistency.
The result: a 1.57 ERA in 23 innings across 16 relief appearances. Most importantly, he compiled 38 strikeouts to just eight walks. He was dominant.
“I know it sounds wild, but the debut was something that I learned from,” Adams said. “And it helped me understand that you can’t be complacent, absolutely not. Not saying I ever was, but you can’t be complacent. You got to be here ready to go every single day. And it was a tough lesson to learn in front of however many people were watching. But sometimes you got learn the hard way and fortunately for me I learned the hard way and I was given a second opportunity.”
Adams said he’s worked with Mark Campbell, the Nationals’ director of mental conditioning, focusing on breaking and focusing since returning to the Nationals. He said it’s allowed him to create a reliable routine and better results; Adams hasn’t allowed a run over his last three outings, striking out seven and walking two in three innings.
“Obviously, if I didn’t get the second opportunity, I’d probably be thinking about that one time of having an infinity ERA in the big leagues,” Adams said. “That’s not really what you want to be telling your kids going to bed. Like, ‘Oh, hey, you pitched in the big leagues for not even an inning.’”
His ERA is no longer unquantifiable. He’s proven, as long as he throws strikes, he can pitch at the highest level. And that’s let him to move on from that dreadful night in mid-July.
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