The nervousness was obvious in the first inning as the Miami Marlins greeted him with three straight hits to begin his return. By the end of the frame, Miami had a 3-0 lead on the Washington Nationals, and Milone’s reemergence appeared on a path to disappointment. But he gained his composure and figured it out. He didn’t allow another run over the next four innings, affording the Nationals the chance for a comeback, which they pulled off in a 10-3 win.
“It was just the first inning, coming out for the first time. It was kind of just a little bit of anxiousness, I guess, nervous — whatever you want to call it,” Milone said. “I settled down after that and felt pretty good.”
Drafted by the Nationals in 2008, Milone made his major league debut with them in 2011 and started five games before he was traded to the Oakland Athletics as part of the package for Gio Gonzalez the following winter. Nearly seven years later, the 31-year-old allowed three runs on eight hits as Stephen Strasburg’s rotation replacement. Relying on a sneaky fastball, he amassed six strikeouts and didn’t walk a batter.
The performance fell in line with how Milone was performing for Class AAA Syracuse recently. Waiting for his chance to break through, Milone pitched to a 2.55 ERA over his last 10 starts after having a 6.16 ERA through his first 10. That slow start — and Milone not being on the 40-man roster — encouraged the Nationals to look elsewhere for rotation help in the minor leagues. Erick Fedde, Jefry Rodriguez and Austin Voth got shots before Milone. Fedde is on the disabled list. Rodriguez struggled. Voth pitched Wednesday, before the Nationals knew they needed a replacement for Strasburg, who was placed on the disabled list with a pinched nerve in his neck. Milone was next in line, so he got on a flight that was delayed and arrived in Miami after 1 a.m. Thursday.
“It was tough because I know there’s different situations,” Milone said. “I know Voth was throwing the ball really well in Triple-A, so I understand the move. But I just felt like I needed to iron out some things in Triple-A, so it actually I think benefited me to stick around a little longer.”
A veteran with significant major league experience gleaning positives from additional time in the minors is not the norm. Milone, however, said the additional time gave him the opportunity for consistent reps every five days or so. He explained that he didn’t benefit from that in recent years, when he was bouncing between the rotation and bullpen, and dealing with injuries. The result was spotty command, a problem for a pitcher whose fastball doesn’t rise above 90 mph very often.
“Being consistent every five days,” Milone said, “going out there and trying to put together good outings really has helped.”
Whether Milone will be back on the mound in six days in Strasburg’s spot remains unclear. Manager Dave Martinez didn’t commit to keeping Milone in the rotation beyond Thursday, but he could end up being their best option again. And jitters shouldn’t be a problem.