Sam Clay gave up a line drive single to right field on his first pitch in the majors, a changeup up in the zone, over the middle of the plate to Ronald Acuña, Jr., then got a groundout from Ozzie Albies and back-to-back Ks from both Freddie Freeman (after starting behind 3-0) and Marcell Ozuna, to end a 15-pitch, eight-strike MLB debut.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Clay acknowledged. “I grew up a Braves fan, I’ve seen all these guys play for quite a while. 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.
“But it was incredible to face the Braves in my debut.”
Summing up his first major league outing overall, the 2014 14th Round pick by Minnesota, who never made it to the majors with the Twins, said simply, “It felt great.”
“There was a little bit of nerves, but that always tends to happen. I was just glad that I could come out and pitch pretty well and put up a zero.”
The strikeout of Freeman, in an at bat in which he benefited from two close, called strikes, was particularly impressive.
“I started off in a hole,” Clay said, of falling behind 3-0 to the reigning NL MVP, “... just felt a little like I was rushing to the plate a little bit, so I tried to stay back, and stay into my legs a little bit more.
“Just try to throw strikes down in the zone, that was pretty much it. I was trying to stay aggressive. May have gotten a little too aggressive early, but came back and did pretty well.”
“It felt really good to get the first strikeout,” he added, “and especially against such a great hitter like Freddie. It’s an incredible feeling to get that first strikeout.”
“He did well,” Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez said. “He did really well. I was proud of him. He got some big outs there facing some really good hitters. And, hey, once he gets ahead, his stuff is nasty, as you see. He went 3-0 on one of the best hitters in the game and came back and threw some pretty nasty sliders.
“For him,” Martinez explained, “... the key is throwing strikes. His ball moves, he’s got a good sinker, really good slider, he can be really tough on lefties, but also like him against righties because of his two-seamer.”
After six seasons in the Twins’ system, and no call-up to the club’s big league roster, it was a long road to the majors, and so it meant a lot to Clay to finally make it.
“It’s a great moment. It took a long time to get here, I’m just very glad I can get this first one out of the way and keep working hard and just keep building on what I’ve done so far.”
How did he motivate himself to keep plugging away when the opportunity wasn’t there in Minnesota?
“It was basically that. Keep working hard. Overcome any adversity. I’ve had to overcome a lot of adversity these past couple years,” Clay told reporters on a Zoom call from Nationals Park. “That’s kind of my mantra. Just keep pushing forward, keep moving forward, adjust, overcome.”
Optioned to Triple-A at the end of Spring Training, Clay got an opportunity when the COVID crisis on the big league roster opened up a number of spots, and he said wanted to do what he can to help while he’s in the majors.
“Absolutely,” Clay said. “I felt like I had a very good spring, and I wasn’t on the original Opening Day roster, but circumstances have put me here, unfortunately.
“It does kind of feel like you’re ‘The Replacements’, but we’re here and we’re going to play hard.”
“He’s another guy that we really liked in Spring Training and it was a tough decision,” Martinez said.
“But we wanted to get him going, and all of a sudden he gets an opportunity to pitch in the big leagues, and he gets his first outing and does what he does. To me that’s awesome. That’s what this game is about, getting chances and succeeding. And he did that today. He’s going to be a big part of our future. No doubt about it. Like I said, he’s got good stuff.”
After a brief pause, Martinez jumped back in on his post-game Zoom call with reporters.
“Hey, by the way, he shows no emotion whatsoever. Zero. I tried to get him to smile. No chance.”