Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Luis Atilano couldn't have scripted a better big-league debut.
Flash-forward 19 years and 1,500 miles north, where on a gorgeous April evening in the District, Atilano made his major-league debut with none other than Rodriguez as his batterymate. That the right-hander, stuck in the minor leagues for the last seven years, tossed six innings of one-run ball to lead the Nationals to a 5-1 victory over the Dodgers only added to the moment.
"It's crazy. It's been my dreams," Atilano said. "After seven years, I made it finally. I pitched to Pudge Rodriguez, hopefully a Hall of Famer. I can't ask for nothing better than that."
The Nats couldn't have asked for anything better out of a rookie pitcher making his debut against the majors' best-hitting club. Even without Manny Ramirez -- who was placed on the DL today with a strained calf -- the Dodgers boasted a formidable lineup that has averaged more than six runs per game this season.
So when Atilano carved this way through Los Angeles' batters with ease, scattering five hits over six innings, it felt like a shot in the arm for a Nationals team desperately seeking some consistency from its up-and-down rotation.
"You bring a guy up, he pitches like that, it's a great night for him, something he'll never forget," manager Jim Riggleman said. "We needed a good performance from a young starter coming up, and we got it. It was beautiful."
Even close observers of the Nationals' farm system paid little attention to Atilano over the years. A sinkerball control specialist who was acquired by Jim Bowden in 2006 for Daryle Ward -- while still recovering from Tommy John surgery -- the right-hander was a regular presence in big-league camp the last few springs but never a real factor.
Atilano was the guy who would pitch the ninth inning of a Grapefruit League game. Or worse, the guy they'd bring along on road trips to serve as the emergency pitcher in case the game went extra innings. He survived right to end of camp this spring and pitched in seven games, but only once was Rodriguez behind the plate. Usually, by the time Atilano entered, Pudge had long since showered and left the premises.
All along, though, Rodriguez knew Atilano was capable of succeeding. The catcher had been following his young countryman's progress, and when the two met this afternoon to discuss a gameplan for the Dodgers, they were on the same page from the start.
"The first thing a pitcher needs: a guy that has some experience behind the plate," Rodriguez said. "Basically he just did what we talked about earlier today in the meeting. Relax and just make sure he follows me and pitches what I wanted."
Atilano did just that. Mixing in his sinker with an assortment of offspeed stuff, he was in total control from the time he stepped on the mound.
He knew all along he was pitching to his hero, but he tried to block that out and treat this just like any old minor-league game. His composure under the bright lights did not go unnoticed.
"He may have been feeling [nervous], but he certainly didn't show it," Riggleman said.
So, was Atilano nervous at all?
"First pitch," he admitted. "After that, everything goes normal."
Perhaps the only times Atilano looked fazed were in his postgame interviews. While being interviewed on MASN on the field, he tried to give good answers, all the while knowing he was going to get a shaving cream pie in the face. (Turns out he got two: one from John Lannan, one from Livan Hernandez.)
Then, in his second go-around with reporters inside the clubhouse, Atilano seemed to have a hard time putting into words what exactly this all meant to him and his family. Two baseballs sat in his locker: one representing his first big-league pitch, one representing his first big-league win. Those will be sent to Puerto Rico, to his parents, who were watching tonight's game on TV with other family members. His cellphone had already been buzzing with text messages congratulating him on this achievement.
And when he began to speak about the significance of sharing this moment with perhaps the greatest catcher in baseball history and certainly the most-famous one ever to come out of Puerto Rico, Atilano briefly had to compose himself and not shed a tear.
"It's huge to me, to pitch in the big leagues," he said. "And to pitch to Pudge? It's just incredible. And win the ballgame? It's even better."