So much for soft landings.
It’s a massive spot, but the Washington Nationals‘ equally massive right-hander — who stands 6-foot-6, weighs 255 pounds, and is considered the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball — is just the guy for the job.
And it has absolutely nothing to do with his tantalizingly talented arm. Well, maybe it has a little bit to do with the cannon. But mostly it’s about the cool.
“He’s a confident kid,” GM Mike Rizzo said prior to Monday’s series opener in D.C. “I think he’ll handle the pressure of his major league debut against a really good team like the New York Mets in stride and give us a chance to win the baseball game.”
Being under the microscope is nothing new for Giolito. A stud prospect coming out of Harvard-Westlake High School in Los Angeles, his stock dropped because of an elbow injury during his senior year. Giolito’s stuff was so good that even though the Nationals knew he was planning on having Tommy John surgery shortly after the 2012 draft, they still took him with the 16th overall pick. Had it not been for the elbow issues, he no doubt would’ve gone earlier — like 15 spots earlier, give or take.
When it comes to teams rolling the dice on prep pitchers with preexisting injuries, Giolito was pretty much the test case. It’s a gig that comes with plenty of pressure, but he hasn’t let it get to him.
In the summer of 2013, when he came back less than a year after Tommy John surgery with all eyes on him, he calmly went out and posted a combined 1.96 ERA at two different levels. In 325 career minor league innings, each one of them thrown with the whole world watching (well, as much as the whole world that can watch minor league baseball), he’s recorded 353 whiffs and allowed just 13 home runs.
Despite what Giolito’s done on the bump, it’s how he’s acted on flat ground that’s been most impressive. The son of actress Lindsay Frost and nephew of “Twin Peaks” creator Mark Frost, the 21-year-old righty is clearly comfortable in front of the bright lights and hot mics. At his first big-league spring training this past February, Giolito wowed reporters with his clubhouse composure. Despite having thrown just 47 innings above Class-A, he vowed that his goal was to make his major league debut this season. Four months later, after going 5-3 with a 3.17 ERA in 14 starts at Double-A Harrisburg, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Just call him Cool Hand Lucas.
Who cares if he’s bypassing Triple-A completely? Certainly not the fearless Giolito, whose earliest memory is splashing water into a bush that contained a beehive and getting stung 20 times. “Amazingly,” he said back in spring training, “I’m not afraid of bees.”
Who cares if he’s jumping straight from Double-A to the bigs? Certainly not the Nationals, who last June called up another 21-year-old former first-rounder (Joe Ross) directly from Harrisburg to fill a void created by a Stephen Strasburg injury (sound familiar?), and had great results. It worked so well that 12 months later, they’re doing the same exact thing with Giolito, whose high 90’s cheese, knee-buckling curve, and plus-changeup appear to be ready for prime time.
“I’m looking forward to watching him from right field.”
“We really trust our guys in the minor leagues to prepare these guys,” Rizzo said. “When they say he’s the guy who should start against the Mets, we take him and we go with it.”
Said one scout who saw Giolito pitch during spring training: “He’s legit.” Whether he’s legit enough to remain in the majors for the rest of the year remains to be seen.
“I don’t know,” manager Dusty Baker said on Monday when asked if he thought Giolito was here to stay. “That’s a good question, but that’s impossible to answer. Has he had enough seasoning down there? Probably not, but sometimes guys do. You never know.”
What we do know is that Strasburg’s on the DL, and what was Tuesday’s TBD is now D.C.’s version of the BFG.
Even if Washington’s big flamethrowing giant does return to the minors when Strasburg comes back, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve seen the last of him this season. A year ago, Ross was sent back down after Strasburg got healthy, but got called back up and ultimately forced his way into the rotation in place of ineffective starter Doug Fister. If you’re looking for this season’s version of Fister, struggling southpaw Gio Gonzalez (8.44 ERA over his last seven starts) could certainly fit the bill.
In the meantime, Washington’s other Gio — yep, that’s his nickname — has more pressing matters at hand, like trying to help the Nats win a second straight game against New York in front of what’s sure to be a stadium full of geeked gawkers, many of whom will be in uniform.
“I’m looking forward to watching him from right field,” Bryce Harper said on Monday.
As for Baker, he’s playing it a little more cool.
“No,” said the 67-year-old skipper when asked if he was excited to see Giolito’s debut. Whether Baker was telling the truth is up for debate. But he sold it. Hard. “He’s a prospect. You know how many prospects I’ve seen? Some work, some don’t.”
In case you’re wondering, all signs point to this one working.