Nolin's comeback driven by family, resilience

September 29th, 2021

DENVER -- When left his house the morning of Feb. 9, he hoped -- if all went well -- he would return with the best news of the day. A strong workout in front of two Major League teams could put him on track to end his six-year hiatus from the bigs. Little did he know, his wife, Sandra, would be the one waiting at home to deliver the life-changing update.

“She’s listening, super excited, but she has something to say and I wasn’t getting the cues,” Nolin said. “I was like, ‘It went well,’ and she was like, ‘Well, I have some other news for you: We’re pregnant.'”

With those words, a Major League comeback was no longer optional for the surprised and excited 31-year-old left-hander. He was determined to earn a roster spot and get back to the stage he debuted on in 2013.

“You know how people say ‘Dad strength?’” Sandra said in a phone interview. “I really feel like you can see that come to fruition, at least with him. I feel like there was just a different level of motivation knowing that it’s not just, he’s doing something for himself and obviously his family being me, but now it’s, ‘There’s a child coming into this world and I want to provide for that child and I just have that extra sense of something bigger that I’m working towards.’”

Sean and Sandra Nolin

There hadn’t been a formal invitation to that offseason workout in Scottsdale, Ariz. Nolin found out about it through a friend, and he asked if there was any room for him to throw since he had not been getting looks with Spring Training approaching. Nolin didn’t know which clubs would be there, but it was worth a shot to showcase what he had been working on since Tommy John surgery sidetracked his career in 2016. Since then, he had pitched in the Minors, the Mexican Pacific Winter League, the independent Atlantic League and, most recently, Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan.

“I’m a super anxious person, it might not show,” Nolin said. “So I was just like, ‘This is it. You’ve got to show your stuff.’ … I let it all eat and threw everything.”

With the Nationals and Pirates watching, Nolin topped out at 95 mph, a velocity he hadn’t hit in more than five years. The Nats took notice, and he joined the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings. Nolin’s road to the bigs with Washington was beginning, but it had been in the works for much longer.

There was the physical side of it, to start. After lifting weights would throw off his range of motion and leave his muscles tight, Nolin took up pilates three years ago. He performs the exercise three times a week as a way to stay strong and stable without feeling too bulky.

This past January, he dove into the mindset side of the game, too. Nolin began working with a mental skills coach to help shift his outlook and embrace being more open minded. Nolin also worked on manifesting, including listing the Nationals as one of three teams when he began practicing the technique this offseason.

“Someone showing me the right way to think, pretty much is what it was,” Nolin said. “Not thinking the worst, but never thinking the best -- that was my problem. I've noticed me just not thinking the worst.”

With a fresh mindset and a deep sense of motivation, Nolin pitched to a 3-3 record and 3.80 ERA over 11 games with the Red Wings. All the while, he and Sandra got to experience the pregnancy together as she was with him in Rochester and road games, including when Nolin was called up to the Nationals on Aug. 11. They rerouted to Queens, where the Long Island native made his first big league appearance since 2015 in a start against the Mets. Over the past seven weeks, he has been tabbed for five starts and three bullpen appearances, including two in multiple-innings of relief.

“He's done well,” manager Dave Martinez said. “It's a testament to how hard he works [and] how hard he worked to get back. … One thing I know about Sean Nolin, no matter what role we put him in, he goes out there and competes and he wants to do the best he can.”

When it comes to baseball, Nolin’s goal is to make an Opening Day roster next season. He believes a combination long relief and spot starter role could be a good long-term fit for him, addressing a need many teams -- including the Nats -- have.

And when it comes to family, his goal is to jump into fatherhood. His son is due on Oct. 11, giving him the entire offseason to be with his growing family. Nolin already has set an example to follow.

“There’s so many times he could have given up,” Sandra said. “But he really persevered, and I really believed in him the whole way. I knew what he was capable of, and I just knew he needed that opportunity to be able to showcase himself. So I would just tell my child that even though the night is always darkest before the dawn, there’s always that light that you need to work towards and not give up on your hopes.”