Reynaldo Lopez, the first Dominican pitcher to start a game for the Washington Nationals who was signed and developed by the team, stepped onto the rubber Tuesday night, his glove high, hiding all but his eyes. Still and stern he stood, frozen as he was when the Nationals told him he was getting called up in the first place, his improbable journey to the major leagues complete.
Los Angeles Dodgers veteran second baseman Chase Utley took his time digging in, which made Lopez stand there set for a few awkward seconds before he could throw his first pitch. Soon after, Utley made him stand for a few seconds more as he rounded the bases with a leadoff home run. But what will linger for these Nationals, weeks or months or seasons from now, is the fact that Lopez was standing there at all.
The Nationals lost, 8-4, so that Utley and the Dodgers scored six runs against Lopez in 42/3 innings mattered in the moment. But that Lopez struck out nine and showed majors-ready stuff over 105 pitches was what may have mattered more.
It mattered to Lopez, so much that he could barely speak when Nationals staff congratulated him on the call-up. It mattered to his grandmother, who he said sobbed hysterically and had trouble breathing when she heard the news. It mattered to the Nationals, who had only had one Latin American starter of their own previously start a big league game.
“It’s something incredible. You always work hard to get here,” Lopez said. “It’s something incredible because I started from the bottom and you never think you’re going to be here.”
Since the Smiley Gonzalez saga rocked their international organization, the Nationals have been building — and rebuilding trust — in their efforts in Latin America. This season, as they spent more money on the international market than ever before and have top-rated Latin prospects up and down the system, they have seen tangible payoff.
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo pulled vice president of international operations Johnny DiPuglia off the road to watch Lopez in person. Hagerstown Suns Manager Patrick Anderson and pitching coach Sam Narron came down to watch. Director of player development Mark Scialabba came, too.
“Every time you get one of those kids from down there to come up, it’s like one of your kids,” DiPuglia said. “It’s a big team effort.”
When the Nationals first spotted Lopez, he was a catcher with quick feet and an even quicker arm. But he was frail, six-foot-nothing, and lucky if his fastball hit 91. Most touted international teenagers sign as soon as they can, at age 16. Lopez was 18 by the time the Nationals got him. They signed him for $17,000. Fellow top prospect Lucas Giolito signed for more than 172 times that much.
When pitching coordinator Paul Menhart saw him in Class AA — without a typical flamethrower’s build, but bulked up and throwing 94 to 96 anyway — he noticed unexpected power.
“It’s one of those things where you go, ‘Watch for this kid down the road,’ ” Menhart said. “And the road has been a little shorter for him. He’s been rushed right through this thing really quickly.”
Lopez battled back trouble in 2015. Healthy this season, he jumped into Baseball America’s top 50 prospects, and ranked top 10 in the minor leagues in strikeouts. Menhart said last year’s failures gave coaches a chance to help Lopez learn how to fail without faltering.
On Tuesday, he allowed that leadoff home run to Utley, three runs in the first, and hits to seven of the first 11 big league batters he faced. Pitching coach Mike Maddux visited him twice in two innings. His high-90s fastball missed spots, leaking back over the plate, getting clobbered so much Manager Dusty Baker wondered later whether the Dodgers saw something that tipped them off.
But Lopez settled in. At one point, he retired eight straight, six by strikeout. He began each hitter the way he began that first one — glove over his face, just below the brim of his cap. Nationals player development staff told Lopez to hold his glove up like that. He has, as Menhart put it, “a unique sense of humor,” and would often smile on the mound more than his coaches thought prudent.
Catcher Jose Lobaton had never caught Lopez before because, unlike Giolito and other prospects, Lopez had not yet been a part of a major league spring training. He told him not to try to throw 100 for three innings. The Nationals needed five or more.
Lopez nearly made it, but he allowed the first three hitters to reach in the fifth, and the Dodgers added two more runs. Baker pulled him. His final line included six runs, 10 hits, one walk and nine strikeouts . Among Nationals, only Stephen Strasburg struck out more in his major league debut.
“I’m sure it shocked him right away to have your first big league hitter hit the ball out of the ballpark. I’m sure he’s not used to guys catching up to his fastball,” Baker said. “. . . But he’s very bright. Just got to tighten up a few things. I think he’ll be here for a long time.”
Meanwhile, Dodgers left-hander Scott Kazmir shut down the Nationals, who did not have sick-to-his-stomach Anthony Rendon and did not include Wilson Ramos — still resting after 18 innings Sunday, Baker said, either. Lobaton homered in the fifth inning. Trea Turner tripled home two runs, and Daniel Murphy doubled home another in an eighth-inning rally that was not enough to overcome the early deficit.
Perhaps, if Joe Ross is not ready in time for his next turn, Lopez will get another start. Perhaps he will go back to the minors, and return in September. The Nationals’ plans for their rotation are uncertain. But their plans for the future certainly include Lopez, and more international talents like him.