WASHINGTON -- Carter Kieboom stood in the dirt just outside the Nationals' dugout, a wide smile spread across his face as he raised both his arms in the air and clapped his hands while 27,193 fans at Nationals Park, including his mother and father, worked themselves into a frenzy.
He had never allowed himself to imagine a moment like this one, the recipient of a curtain call in his Major League debut. Kieboom swatted a 1-1 slider from Padres reliever Craig Stammen 400 feet and over the center-field wall for his first career Major League hit, his first career big league home run in game-tying fashion in the eighth inning. The Nationals would go on to drop Friday’s game, 4-3 to the Padres, but Kieboom’s Major League debut offered a glimpse of why the team believed the 21-year old was ready to play every day in the big leagues.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever even dreamed that, but that was unbelievable,” Kieboom said of the curtain call. “That’s like the cherry on top of anybody’s call-up moment. That was real special. I really appreciate the fans for doing that.”
Kieboom described his first day in the big leagues as a whirlwind of emotions.
The morning prior, he woke up to five missed calls, including a voicemail from Randy Knorr, the Nats’ Triple-A manager, prompting him to get to the lobby at the team hotel in Reno, Nev., as soon as possible. He scooped his glasses and hurried downstairs where he found the entire Triple-A coaching staff waiting to give him the news he had waited a lifetime for.
Kieboom admitted he felt some jitters, but with each first crossed off the list -- first at-bat, first defensive chance -- he started to feel more comfortable. He did not swing at any of the first six pitches as he struck out in his first at-bat, then grounded out to second base in his second at-bat before connecting for his first career homer in the third at-bat.
“You know he's on cloud nine,” Nats starter Max Scherzer said. “In your debut game, everybody is. For him to not only to be in a debut game, to stay calm and collected in a big spot and hit a homer, that's awesome. Something he'll never forget.”
Kieboom had an opportunity for even more heroics in the ninth. With the Nats trailing by a run, he came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs, a chance to punctuate his debut with a storybook ending, but Padres closer Kirby Yates struck him out on a biting splitter to seal San Diego’s victory.
“It was a good pitch,” Kieboom said. “He threw it exactly where he wanted to. That’s unfortunate, but that’s just how it works out sometimes.”
The Nationals could have promoted Kieboom three weeks ago, when Turner landed on the injured list on April 3, but they instead elected to give the light-hitting Wilmer Difo a chance to fill in at short every day. The Nats said they wanted Kieboom to get more refinement defensively before they called him up to play such a demanding defensive position, but Kieboom’s defense has not improved drastically in three weeks. At that point earlier this month, however, he had never played a game in his career above Double-A.
So when he proved that he belonged at Triple-A Fresno -- with a slash line of .379/.506/.636 in his first 18 games -- general manager Mike Rizzo made the decision to bring him up. Jake Noll was optioned to Triple-A in his place and Koda Glover transferred to the 60-day injured list to create room on the 40-man roster.
“He's a guy that we've trusted all along he's going to be a big league shortstop, an everyday-type of guy,” Rizzo said. “What's changed is four weeks in the Triple-A season. More reps at that level. He had never played at that level. So, we wanted to see how he would handle that. He's handled it great defensively, offensively. He's got a high baseball IQ. He really knows how to play the game. There's going to be a learning curve. There's going to be hiccups. We think we have a special 21-year-old player that we think is going to allow us to compete and assists us in winning some games.”
With Turner expected to be sidelined for 4-to-8 weeks following his injury and his timeline appearing to be on the longer side, Kieboom is going to get a chance to prove he should stick around.
“An opportunity is all you can ask for as a player,” Kieboom said prior to the game. “I think that’s all any player has ever wanted when they get called up is an opportunity to show what they can do. To know that I’ll be given a legit opportunity to play is a huge factor. It gives you confidence.”
Once Kieboom got the news of the promotion, he immediately called his parents, friends and his brothers, including his older brother, Spencer, a catcher in the Nats organization, currently at Double-A Harrisburg. Judging by Spencer’s tweet, there were few people happier for Carter after his first career home run.
The Nationals rave about Kieboom for a number of reasons, but his poise and demeanor are among the main reasons they think he can handle this promotion at such a young age. Beyond the cool face he put forward, however, he realized how surreal the entire day felt Friday.
“This whole thing is crazy to me,” Kieboom said. “I mean, I was in high school three years ago doing art projects. This is like … it’s hard to even describe it."