A broken humerus in his right elbow threatened Barrett’s career, and his physical well-being, in July 2016. A broken humerus set him on a three-year recovery that included learning to throw again, and to trust his arm again, and climbing through the minors again as if he were that kid out of Ole Miss. And a broken humerus is why he was crying after the fifth inning in Atlanta, his red faced pressed into a white towel, his teammates cycling by to tap his shoulder and tell him good job.
Barrett worked a scoreless frame against one of the best lineups in baseball. He struck out Ronald Acuña Jr. looking with a change-up. But what really mattered in that moment — what will be remembered, what the scoreboard couldn’t say — is that Barrett was out there pitching at all. The 31-year-old set a goal, four long years ago, of returning to the majors with the Nationals. Now he did it with his wife, parents, grandparents, two brothers, physical therapist and even more extended family in the stands.
“You dream about the moment, you picture the moment, you try to visualize what it’s going to be like,” Barrett said. “And you know whatever moment or whatever happens, it’s unlikely anything you envisioned.”
After Barrett was called into the game, and after he jogged in, warmed up and whispered a prayer behind the mound, he was a bit too hyped up. His first pitch was a yanked fastball that bounced in the opposite batter’s box. His second was about a foot over the strike zone. He wound walking Adeiny Hechavarria on four pitches, only one of them close, and that brought up pitcher Julio Teheran. Barrett threw another ball before Teheran popped a bunt to Ryan Zimmerman. That helped Barrett settled in.
He drew a big breath as Acuña stepped up, crouched down, then squinted in for the sign from catcher Kurt Suzuki. It took just three pitches for him to send the 21-year-old phenom back to the dugout. It took him three more to get Ozzie Albies to fly out to center field. That’s when Barrett began his walk to the dugout, and he was soon sitting on the bench with his head in his hands. Manager Dave Martinez walked over and draped a towel around Barrett’s neck. Paul Menhart, his pitching coach and longtime mentor, pulled him in for a long hug.
Menhart was there the day Barrett broke his humerus on a near-empty field in West Palm Beach, Fla. Menhart later likened the sound of the bone breaking to a wooden board being kicked in half. Mat Latos, another rehabbing pitcher, threw up in the dugout after Barrett’s arm snapped. Barrett was immediately asking “Why me?” before he was rushed to a hospital. He vowed to pitch again once the shock wore off. He had his doubts along the way, times when the pain was too strong, temptations to quit and find something else to do with his life.
But those thoughts were always quieted by the possibility of a comeback. And that possibility was finally realized Saturday night.
“It’s just surreal,” Barrett said. “It really is. I don’t know if it’s hit me yet.”