MIAMI — Justin Miller’s professional baseball career, once so promising, was at a crossroads last August. He was unemployed, released by the Los Angeles Angels organization before he could reach the major league club. A few years earlier, before Tommy John surgery and a weight gain, his fastball touched 100 mph a couple times, but in the summer of 2017, he couldn’t even hit 92 anymore. He had a newborn to provide for and something needed to change if he were ever to pitch in the big leagues again.
So after his release, listening to advice from his agent and future teammate Brandon Kintzler, Miller began training with Cressey Sports Performance in Las Vegas. He lost weight and gained flexibility. By the time a Washington Nationals official watched him throw a bullpen session over the winter, Miller was a different pitcher, so different that the Nationals signed Miller to a minor league deal before a scheduled showcase for teams because they feared he would sign elsewhere.
Over four months later — after spending spring training on the minor league side, beginning the season in extended spring training, and dominating the International League when finally assigned to Class AAA Syracuse — Miller returned to the major leagues on Friday when the Nationals officially called him up from Syracuse before beginning a three-game series against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park.
“It’s good to be back and good to get back here,” Miller said. “Yeah, last year was a little of a down year for me. Both velo and mentally-wise and stuff like that.”
Miller took Erick Fedde’s spot on the 25-man roster after Fedde was recalled for a spot start Wednesday. Fedde was good in his outing, allowing three runs across 5 1/3 innings, but the Nationals’ starting rotation is intact and they want Fedde to continue starting every five days so he was optioned back to Syracuse on Thursday. Washington didn’t need to create a vacancy on its 40-man roster for Miller because Carlos Torres was designated for assignment Wednesday and hadn’t been replaced.
The 30-year-old Miller was lights-out this season for Syracuse, logging 13 2/3 scoreless innings across eight appearances. A fastball-slider pitcher his entire career, Miller added a splitter and had 23 strikeouts to three walks — one intentional. He allowed three hits and posted a 0.439 WHIP.
A year after Matt Albers ascended from minor-league free agent to crucial cog in the Washington bullpen, Miller has been a revelation. He appeared in 82 games for the Detroit Tigers and Colorado Rockies from 2014 through 2016 but didn’t reach the majors in 2017, toiling on the Angels’ Class AAA affiliate.
“It was more mentality,” Miller said. “Making everything simple. Just getting ahead of guys and putting them away when I can. Other than that, just looking for early contact and filling up the zone and it’s been working out pretty good.”
Miller is the latest addition from Syracuse the Nationals hope can bolster their middle relief, a soft spot this season, following Wander Suero’s and Tim Collins’s promotions in recent weeks. He joins Washington a few weeks before he could’ve opted out of his contract on June 15. He surely would’ve gotten a major league deal pitching like he has. Instead, the Nationals, searching for bullpen depth, will give him a shot, hoping he’ll be the next minor-league free agent to make an impact.
Trea Turner SS
Bryce Harper RF
Anthony Rendon 3B
Matt Adams 1B
Juan Soto LF
Pedro Severino C
Michael A. Taylor CF
Max Scherzer P
Wilmer Difo 2B
Martin Prado 3B
J.T. Realmuto C
Justin Bour 1B
Starlin Castro 2B
Brian Anderson RF
Derek Dietrich LF
Miguel Rojas SS
Lewis Brinson CF
Jose Urena P