Then he began a long journey back to that very spot.
“It’s been incredible. She’s been my rock,” Barrett said, his face red and eyes watering, of the unrelenting support from his wife, Kendyl. “Not only her, my family, this whole organization has been incredible. Sorry.”
Barrett had no reason to apologize. Four years away is a long time. The logistics of his call-up were pretty simple: The Nationals opened a 40-man roster spot by placing Austen Williams on the 60-day injured list. They decided to fill it with Barrett, whom they drafted out of Mississippi in 2010, but not just because of his fight back.
The 31-year-old had a 2.75 ERA and 31 saves for the Class AA Harrisburg Senators this season. He became the team’s all-time saves leader, a title he didn’t necessarily want, and Washington particularly likes how his slider plays against right-handed hitters.
The moment he was recalled Tuesday was emotional for many reasons. Assistant General Manager Doug Harris drove to Harrisburg to see it in person. Matt LeCroy, the Senators manager, called a team meeting. He called Barrett onto the field, the club’s token old guy, and announced that there would be an annual award in Barrett’s name. Barrett thought that was pretty cool. Then LeCroy told him he was going back to the majors for Wednesday’s 1:05 p.m. game against the New York Mets, and Barrett thought that couldn’t be true.
He called Kendyl right away. She and his daughter, Kollyns, will be at Nationals Park for what could be his first major league appearance since Aug. 5, 2015. So will Barrett’s parents, grandparents and brother, who flew in to Washington on Wednesday morning.
“Pretty surreal,” Barrett said, just a few spots down from his old locker. “I try to picture back when I first got called up in , making the team out of camp, kind of what that experience was compared to this. And I honestly think this one might be better than the first one.”
The right-hander couldn’t stop smiling in the clubhouse a few hours ahead of first pitch. He shook the hand of each reporter who surrounded his stall, either introducing himself — “Hi, I’m Aaron” — or saying: “Good to see you again.” He opened the safe above his locker and took out WD-40, a long-running joke that he needs it for the screws in his arm. Orthopedist James Andrews, who inserted those screws during a six-hour surgery, texted Barrett on Tuesday and told the pitcher he was unbelievable.
Teammates, old and new, filtered through to say hello and congratulations to Barrett as warmups neared. Then the pitcher slipped on a pair of cleats, grabbed his glove and headed out to the field, where he hopes to contribute to a pennant race in the coming weeks. His sinker is back into the low 90s, sometimes humming a hair harder, and his slider again grabbed the front office’s attention. Harris is adamant that Barrett earned this promotion by what he did on the mound this spring and summer. And Martinez echoed that before Wednesday’s game.
“I talked to him this morning. I said, ‘Hey, you’re going to pitch,’ ” Martinez recalled. “ ‘I saw what you did against right-handed hitters this year. Your slider was really effective, so just be ready to pitch.’ And he says he’s always ready. So I’m looking forward to that moment.”
When Barrett got back to the mound this spring and Ryan Zimmerman made it a requirement that the whole team stick around to watch him, Barrett broke down in tears in an empty spring training clubhouse. Each step of this process — throwing for the first time, training his mind and arm to sync back up, taking another climb through the minors — has been a reason to reflect and celebrate. But he still knew there was one more step to go.
His first baseball dream returned. He wanted to get back on a big league mound — the mound at Nationals Park — to be the pitcher who once appeared in two postseason games. He wanted that feeling again.
“There were times where I didn’t know if I’d get through it, just the pain was too much. There’s just so much going on, I couldn’t take it,” Barrett began. “But I’m not a quitter, never have been, and I found it in myself to keep pushing forward.
“And I said it all along: When I make it back, it’s going to be a hell of a comeback story.”