“LADIEEEEES AN’ GENNILMEN!”
“Pitching for the Nashnals!”
Is he drunk? He’s drunk.
“Making his Nashnal! De! But!”
Heads are turning to catch a glimpse of the man seated a few rows behind me. I remain very still; to turn might mean making eye contact and indicating a challenge or, more dangerously, risking camaraderie. Nationals Park was designed to facilitate views of the Capitol building, but in reality it’s only visible from the nosebleeds. Let me tell you, we can see the Dome of Democracy with ease. We are behind home plate in the way the moon is behind Earth.
The guy whose hat bill I walked into while filing into my seat earlier — he seemed confused by the physics of it, too — squints in our direction. The yelling man is an entire 55-minute, sticky-June-thunderstorm-delay level of drunk. He is only getting louder.
I imagine him surrounded by soggy peanut shells.
Nationals fans would have been forgiven for having something less than a parade on the occasion of the major league debut of baseball’s no. 1 prospect; after all, it was pouring, and they had a mere day’s notice that he was being called up from Double-A Harrisburg. But when the 21-year-old jogs from the bullpen beneath the rainbow that formed after the rain delay — I am not ascribing any significance to this; I’m just noting that there was a literal shimmering arc of Roy G. Biv as Giolito began his MLB career — he receives a standing ovation.
Below — way below — Giolito throws a few practice pitches to catcher Wilson Ramos. The yelling man, having secured the attention of our section, trails off, hollering something about consuming 44,000 beers in honor of the latest, greatest National before going quiet.
When Stephen Strasburg was first called up to the majors in 2010, the earth shook. For weeks, the Nats — in the midst of a bleak 69–93 season in which they didn’t so much fall to last place in the NL East as lurk at the bottom of the standings for a third consecutive year — had hyped the then-21-year-old. When he finally debuted in June against the Pirates, fans had a name ready for the occasion: Strasmas. And then he dazzled with 14 — 14! — strikeouts on 94 pitches. The crowd cheered for each, and when the K’s kept coming, fans eventually decided to just stay on their feet preemptively. At least four D.C. restaurants began selling Strasburgers.
Giolito didn’t have the benefit of Strasburg’s careful staging: He was an emergency call-up — to fill in for Strasburg, no less, who was sent to the disabled list with a back issue — and squared off against Matt Harvey and the division rival Mets.
On his second pitch, Giolito threw his first strike, a 94 mph fastball to Curtis Granderson, and the crowd applauded gamely. But on the next pitch he gave up a bloop single, and the crowd said, “Ooo,” the way you would if a friend showed you a picture of her significant other for the first time and, you know, I’m sure he’s very nice, has a great personality. Giolito couldn’t quite find the zone, and two balls followed to Asdrubal Cabrera. “Oh, come on,” someone muttered.
But Granderson’s hit was the only one Giolito would allow over four scoreless innings. With two outs in the first, his second pitch to Neil Walker was that blazing fastball we’d all been promised, the one seen in videos and GIFs, with the nasty bite that makes you say a little prayer for not ever having something like that thrown at your soft, fleshy, earthly-reflexed self — and the crowd was back in it, cheering. When Walker grounded out, Nats Park climbed to its feet.
Giolito is gigantic: 6-foot-6, 255 pounds. But his delivery is so tidy that when he pitches he seems to shrink, looking for all the world like he’s taking a polite bow as the ball departs his hand, rocketing forward to an ash oblivion. He was taken 16th overall by the Nationals in the 2012 draft, just after a senior-year elbow injury at Harvard-Westlake School sentenced him to Tommy John surgery. He’s been eagerly awaited ever since.
But then — and again, I’m just noting a meteorological event here, one that was wholly unrelated to the events on the pitcher’s mound — lightning flashed and black clouds filled the sky. People pulled out their phones; little Doppler radar maps glowed through the thickening darkness, bright pink blobs hurtling toward the District.
The tarp came back out. Giolito, waiting in the dugout as the Nats tried to add to their 1–0 lead, remained seated. By the time the game resumed an hour and a half later, he had been replaced by relief pitcher Yusmeiro Petit to start the fifth. The Nats cruised to a 5–0 victory. The yelling man vanished.
In the end, Giolito recorded a single strikeout in his MLB debut, a far cry from Strasburg’s entry six years ago; it’s unlikely that anyone will immediately name a food item after him. But this was only the beginning. The Nats — now five games up in the East over a limping Mets squad — and their top prospect might find room for more standing ovations yet.