When Clay got the nod to start the fourth inning of the Nats' 7-6 loss to Atlanta on Wednesday, he was ready -- that “strike out the MVP from your favorite childhood team” kind of ready.
“I grew up a Braves fan,” Clay said. “It was a little crazy just because you see these guys on TV, and then you’re standing up on the mound and you see them standing there, and they just look like giants.”
The Georgia Tech alum faced the top of the Braves' order in Game 1 of the doubleheader. After Ronald Acuña Jr. singled, Clay got Ozzie Albies to ground out, fitting as he led the Minors with a 71.3 percent ground-ball rate in 2019.
Clay then battled back from consecutive 3-0 counts to fan reigning National League Most Valuable Player Freddie Freeman and catch Marcell Ozuna swinging.
“It felt pretty good to get the first strikeout, especially against such a great hitter like Freddie,” Clay said.
In fanning Freeman, Clay became Washington’s first pitcher to strike out the reigning MVP since John Lannan fanned Ryan Howard on July 26, 2007. The last pitcher from any team to do so was the Astros’ Nivaldo Rodríguez, on July 28, 2020, against Cody Bellinger.
“I started off in a hole, just felt a little like I was rushing to the plate a little bit,” Clay said of facing Freeman. “So I tried to stay back and stay into my legs a little bit more. I just tried to throw strikes down in the zone. I was trying to stay aggressive. I may have gotten a little too aggressive early, but I came back and did pretty well.”
Clay had been building up to this moment since 2014, when he was drafted in the fourth round by the Twins. He only has allowed one home run since the start of the 2017 season, and he recorded 72 strikeouts in ‘19 -- the last full Minor League season.
This Spring Training, he impressed the Nats with a 3.12 ERA over 8 2/3 innings. But their bullpen was stacked, and he was optioned to Triple-A Rochester to start the season, which manager Dave Martinez called a tough decision.
Once the team was shorthanded by positive COVID-19 test results and quarantines, including southpaw reliever Brad Hand, Clay was called up to add another lefty arm in the 'pen. From camp in West Palm Beach, Fla., to the alternate site in Fredericksburg, Va., to Washington, D.C., Clay estimates he has moved four times in a week.
“That’s what this game is about, getting chances and succeeding -- and he did that today,” Martinez said. “He’s going to be a big part of our future, no doubt about it.”