Clay 'shell-shocked' by contract with Nats

November 19th, 2020

spent the past seven seasons working his way up the Twins' Minor League system, so when the Nationals presented an offer, he thought he had an idea of what it would be.

“I didn’t expect a Major League contract,” Clay said. “I expected a regular Minor League contract.”

Expectations exceeded. On Wednesday, Washington signed the 27-year-old left-hander to a Major League deal, bringing its 40-man roster to 31 (including 19 pitchers).

“It was disbelief, honestly,” Clay said. “I was shell-shocked. I didn’t know what to say. I was speechless, honestly. It was just an incredible feeling.”

Clay was selected by the Twins in the fourth round of the 2014 Draft. In ‘19 -- his last full Minor League season -- he went 4-4 with a 3.25 ERA and 10 saves over 45 appearances (one start) between Double-A and Triple-A ball. This year, he was a member of Minnesota’s 60-man player pool and landed a spot on the taxi squad, which he thought might lead to his big league debut.

“It just wasn’t in the cards,” he said. “It was disappointing. But my entire career has been filled with stuff like that where I thought I would get a shot and I didn’t. ... It’s not something that discourages me. It’s something that makes me want to work harder.”

Clay has built up his résumé to get to this point with the Nationals. He led the Minors with a 71.3% ground-ball rate, fanned 72 batters and did not surrender a home run across 69 1/3 innings in 2019. In fact, Clay has allowed only one homer since the beginning of the ‘17 season.

“I’ve got a sinker, slider, changeup,” he said. “I use those pitches at any point, in any count, against anybody.”

Clay joins a Nationals pitching staff with a familiar face in Ryne Harper, with whom he played in Double-A in 2018. As for his new teammates, Clay grew up following Max Scherzer and remembers when Stephen Strasburg -- “this big, tall flamethrower” -- was drafted by the Nats in ‘09.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “I followed their careers and I’ve watched them on TV. I’m very, very excited to be able to play with them and pitch behind them.”

There’s also already a familiarity with Washington, D.C. A family road trip in the early 2000s sparked Clay’s interest and left him “awestruck” by the buildings and architecture.

“The history and culture of D.C. has always fascinated me for a very long time,” he said. “So I’m very excited to be able to live in that city and be able to explore even more.”

Having signed a deal this early in the offseason, Clay hopes to spend the winter training at his alma mater, Georgia Tech, building up his arm after throwing fewer innings this season than in previous years, all with the focus of being ready to contribute for the Nationals -- on the Major League level.

“It just feels more real,” he said. “In the past, it’s always been just something off in the distance. It’s not been something that’s within grasp. Now, getting this contract, it’s within grasp and it’s time for me to take full advantage.”