Mom's voice has kept Nats lefty persevering

May 9th, 2021

The showcase was designed to highlight the top 100 underclassmen baseball players in Georgia. There would be recruiters there, a great opportunity for exposure for a high school sophomore. didn’t expect very much to come from it, though. Participation didn’t guarantee interest, and, after all, Clay considered himself to be a football player who also played baseball.

But even if he didn’t realize his potential to turn heads at the event, his mother, Belinda, did.

“My mom wanted me to pitch in this thing and play in this little showcase to really show myself how good I can be. I didn’t really expect much out of it,” Clay recalled last month in a telephone interview with “I pitched and hit and played the outfield a little bit and did the regular showcase stuff. I got a couple of pamphlets and letters from college teams at my first showcase. I hadn't done anything like that before. It just kind of put this confidence in me that this was something I could do.”

Belinda believed Sam could thrive then, just as she believed he could succeed years later in the pros. He still feels her presence even though she is no longer with him, especially on days like April 7 when -- at age 27 -- he made his Major League debut with the Nationals.

“I really wish she could have been there to see that,” Sam said. “She was my biggest supporter.”


In order to persevere through seven years in the Minor Leagues, Clay leaned on his family. He had a fiery, competitive nature to push himself on his own -- as the youngest of five athletic siblings, even running to the car in a parking lot was a contested sprint -- but having a constant support system also gave him unwavering encouragement.

“He and his mom, they were very close,” Sam’s father, Darby, said in a phone interview last month. “He was her baby, and it showed all the time. She loved her little boy.”

There were long car rides to football and baseball games, sprawling drives to visit family in Texas and a trek to Minnesota for a college summer baseball league. While Belinda and Sam both enjoyed the oldies, she always indulged in his alternative music selections, too, during their travels.

“It was the quickest 15-hour drive to Texas and a super quick 20-plus-hour drive to Minnesota just because we’d talk about anything,” Sam said. “The conversation was always very easy. I’m sure if you’ve gone on a long road trip with another person, it can be a little strenuous at points. But it was never that way with her.”

After Sam was selected by the Twins in the fourth round of the 2014 MLB Draft, Belinda and Darby made it to as many games as they could. From Tennessee to Florida, with stops in between, they rooted Sam on through the Minor League levels. Darby paced around in anticipation of each pitch Sam threw while Belinda remained calm, a characteristic Darby now sees Sam exude on the mound.

“She was always a big, big cheerleader,” Sam said. “I could hear my mom and my dad over everybody. I know exactly what they were doing in the stands every game, at least when I was pitching. My mom would eat hot tamales, those little cinnamon candies. She would sit there and eat that and cheer me on and get on me if I was walking people -- which I did quite a bit of in earlier years.”

Three years into Clay’s professional climb, he received devastating news. Belinda had sought medical attention for back pain, and an MRI revealed bone cancer. She underwent surgeries and treatments that offseason. Sam spent time with his family that winter, and he reported to Spring Training a few months later with an optimistic outlook.

“Going into spring, the hopes are still high when you get a diagnosis like that -- she’s going to fight through it, she’s going to be OK, everything’s going to be OK,” Sam said. “I tried to keep high spirits. My dad kept high spirits. The whole family was in high spirits.”

Even while Belinda was in the middle of treatment, she and Darby still traveled to see Sam, who was in his first full season of Double-A ball in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“She still made a couple of trips and got to see me pitch a couple of times at a pretty high level of baseball,” Sam said. “I’ll always be incredibly grateful for that.”

Sam returned home to be with his family that offseason. In October, after a year of battling, Belinda’s health declined.

“Even at that point, your hopes are still pretty high that something will happen, [that she will] make a miraculous recovery,” Sam said. “But unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”

Belinda passed away on her 30th wedding anniversary, Nov. 5, 2018.

Sam wore the Nos. 11 and 5 on his jerseys in high school and college. Now, he wears them stitched into the thumb of his glove to honor the date of his mother’s passing.

That was with him when he took the mound for his big league debut earlier this month against his hometown Braves. He had a cheering section of family, his girlfriend and a family friend on hand as he faced the top of Atlanta’s order and struck out reigning National League Most Valuable Player Freddie Freeman in a scoreless one-inning appearance. Following the game, he earned praise from manager Dave Martinez, who said after Sam’s debut, “He’s going to be a big part of our future.”

“We all wish that she would have been there for that,” Darby said. “That was something that we all just wished that she could have seen, been there supporting him during that. But we know she was with us, but it was quite emotional, I can tell you that.”

Channeling his inner intensity with that calm demeanor he gleaned from his mother, Sam has held teams scoreless in eight of his first 10 Major League appearances. Entering this weekend’s series against the Yankees, he had held opponents to a .176 batting average -- including an impressive .063 (1-for-16) against lefties.

“He just never gave up and just kept on persevering until he’s at where he’s at,” Darby said. “And it's not over yet.”

This is where his mother always believed he belonged, even years ago at that high school showcase in Georgia.

“I always try to hear her voice in my mind whenever I’m up on the mound,” Sam said. “She always tends to give me the right advice. Always gives me the right advice or just words of encouragement -- like she always did.”