As Koda Glover watched Max Scherzer jog in from the bullpen in the fifth inning of Game 5 of the National League Division Series, he thought, “That should be me.”
Glover probably wouldn’t have pitched that fateful fifth inning against the Chicago Cubs instead of Scherzer, even if he had been healthy. But he wasn’t even an option for Manager Dusty Baker, who watched Scherzer endure a tumultuous frame that ultimately helped doom the Washington Nationals’ season.
“It just keeps replaying in my head. I feel like that was my situation and I feel like I would’ve been successful in the situation for sure,” Glover said. “And those are the moments that I missed out on. I don’t want to miss out on them anymore.”
That precocious confidence defines the 24-year-old and his career, for better or worse. In him, the Nationals see a future closer, a fearless, perfectly deluded late-inning guy with the stuff to match the mentality — a rare find for a franchise that has sought closers like Ahab hunted his whale.
But Glover has not realized that potential, or even become a reliable big league reliever yet, in large part because of that same confidence. He wants to pitch and believes he is the best man for any job. Consequently, he does not step aside easily and has now pushed through two injuries to the point that they ended his season anyway. In 2016, a torn labrum in his hip rendered him unable to pitch in October. In 2017, it was inflammation in his rotator cuff.
“I think there’s a big difference in pain and then trying to push through something. It’s something that I’ve talked to [Stephen] Strasburg a lot about. We’ve kind of had some similar disadvantages when it comes to that kind of stuff,” Glover said. “It’s one of them things that if it gets too bad you got to shut it down, and that’s something that I’ve learned.”
The Nationals drafted Glover in the eighth round of the 2015 draft. By August 2016, he was in the major leagues, rushed from college ball to the pros because his talent dictated the sprint. Glover was the second player drafted in 2015 to reach the majors. Stuff-wise, he was ready. In other ways, he wasn’t.
“We pushed him pretty fast,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “You’re talking about college to the big leagues in just a little over a year. … He tried to battle through things. He wanted to be in the big leagues and wanted to pitch through some pain. And I think that ended up biting him in the end. That’s part of youthful baseball players. They have the ‘John Wayne syndrome.’ ”
That John Wayne syndrome combined with the increased stress of life in the majors, which is less forgiving than even rushed minor league life. In the minors, the Nationals controlled Glover’s workload. In the majors, in two pennant races, they could not afford to do so.
“When you get here going three or four days in a row, it’s tough,” Glover said. “I’ve gotten on a really strict arm care program that’s really helping me. … I’m a lot more prepared.”
After landing on the disabled list in June, Glover spent his time at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, rehabbing to a point of near-rehab-assignment readiness. Then he had a setback. He had been talking to Baker, explaining that he was nearly ready to return. Suddenly, he was on the verge of tears.
But after being shut down with that shoulder trouble in September, Glover was cleared to throw in November. He will begin throwing off a mound in January. In the meantime, he is rotating between three physical therapists, and no one saw cause for concern in the trouble he had when he first resumed throwing, or surprise at the ease with which he is throwing now. Barring a setback — and Glover, breaking with bravado, was careful to acknowledge the possibility — he will be ready for spring training.
If he can stay healthy in 2018, Glover could combine with Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle to give the Nationals the makings of a super bullpen. If injury strikes, Glover’s career could pivot around how he handles it.
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