Nats rookies relish their Major League debuts

April 5th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jessica Camerato’s Nationals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

When 29-year-old ran off the field after making his Major League debut for the Nationals, 26-year-old was one of the first players waiting in the dugout to give him a high five and a hug. Ward had accomplished the same, long-awaited feat two innings earlier, and the relievers took a moment to savor the accomplishment together.

“We were sharing the fact that we did it: We made it to the big leagues,” Harris said.

Harris and Ward got the call from the bullpen on Saturday afternoon against the Braves. Ward tossed the seventh and eighth innings, and Harris pitched the ninth.

“It was awesome, it really was,” manager Dave Martinez said. “I kind of wanted to see what they would do, but they both kept their composure, and they were actually a lot of fun. They both came in very happy.”

The right-handers took different roads to get to the same mound.

The Nationals selected Ward with the No. 1 pick in the Rule 5 Draft in December after the Red Sox did not protect him. A fifth-round MLB Draft selection by Boston in 2018, Ward did not play in 2020 as a Minor Leaguer and underwent Tommy John surgery in June of ‘21. Last season, he went 0-2 with a 2.28 ERA in 13 starts across four Minor League levels, reaching Double-A.

Ward came into camp as a starter-turned-multiple-innings reliever. Players selected in the Rule 5 Draft have to earn a spot and stay on the active roster the entire season or be offered back to their original club for $50,000. After making the Opening Day squad, Ward had nine friends and family members on hand for Thursday’s season opener and six at the park Saturday for his debut.

“It was a lot of fun,” Ward said. “It didn’t really go exactly how you dream it goes, but it was kind of everything you dream of -- running out there, looking around the crowd and having the stadium just towering over you. It was definitely a lot of fun.”

Facing eight Braves batters, Ward -- ranked as the Nats’ No. 12 prospect by MLB Pipeline -- allowed two runs off two hits (including a home run) and recorded a strikeout.

“There’s nothing you can really do to anticipate what you’re going to feel like out there,” Ward said. “… There’s no way to prepare for it. You can visualize yourself doing it over and over again, you can have the experience like I did in the exhibition game [March 28 at Nationals Park against the Yankees] and you’re just overwhelmed with a lot of feelings. Definitely the first inning, a lot of nerves going on. I was happy I got the first pitch over for a strike; that’s what I was the most worried about.”

With a personal cheering section of approximately 20 people, Harris followed Ward out of the bullpen to throw a scoreless frame with one hit and one strikeout. Harris’ debut resulted from the strong impression he made in Spring Training after he signed a Minor League deal with the Nationals in November. He posted a 0.90 ERA with only one run allowed in 10 innings.

“It’s something that I’ve worked for my entire life,” said Harris. “I was able to put myself in the moment and really enjoy it, but it still hasn’t hit me just how big of an accomplishment that is for myself, for my family, for everyone that supported it. I’m looking forward to when it actually sets in. I still haven’t gotten emotional; I’m sure at some point I will. But just the sheer weight that that’s going to carry when it does hit me, it’s going to be cool.”

The moment was eight years in the making for Harris, a 31st-round MLB Draft pick of the Yankees in 2015. He pitched for the Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate in ‘21 and on the same level with the Brewers last season, where he went 4-3 with a 2.04 ERA in 53 relief appearances.

“The only times that I’ve been in ballparks like that was as a spectator, as a little kid,” Harris said. “To me, looking up and seeing it from a different perspective and seeing that it was from the perspective that I worked for, it was more rewarding than I can put into words.”

Harris and Ward have received advice over the years as they chased their Major League aspirations. A message Harris received from Nashville Sounds teammate Rex Brothers rang that afternoon.

“The one thing that he said last year that resonated with me was, ‘Every time you step on the field, play to make your 8-year-old self proud,’” Harris recounted. “And when I stepped on the field, I was like, ‘You know what, I think I made my 8-year-old self proud.’”